Expert shares strategies for parenting
'Untangled' author talks about stress, anxiety during COVID-19 in D181 webinar
Last updated 4/15/2020 at 4:01pm | View PDF
Anxiety and stress can be normal and healthy responses but are often vilified, psychotherapist and best-selling author Lisa Damour said Tuesday night.
"This is something that has definitely gotten lost," she said.
Damour presented a special webinar edition of The Community Speaker Series presented by the District 181 Foundation to discuss the challenges of parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anxiety works like an alarm system to keep us safe. It becomes unhealthy only in the absence of a threat or when it is "grossly out of proportion" to the threat.
"A degree of anxiety right now makes sense," she said. "I can tell you that I feel largely comfortable at home ... but when I go to the grocery store, my anxiety goes up and it's not a particularly comfortable thing."
People experiencing anxiety often have a physical response. Their heart rate goes up, their breathing changes and they might feel queasy - essentially a "fight or flight" response, she said.
The best first step is to calm the physical reaction by changing breathing. She recommends square or box breathing: breathe in for a count of three, hold for three, exhale for three and wait for three.
"If you do this a few times, you usually feel quite a bit better," she said.
People can reframe how they see anxiety, recognizing that emotional arousal can be beneficial and a signal that they are primed and ready to go. Anxious thoughts can be mitigated by examining how much danger is really present and how that danger can be managed.
"It is almost always the case that we have overestimated the danger we are in or underestimated our ability to manage that danger," she said.
Stress is a normal response to situations that require us to adapt, she said. Stress becomes unhealthy when it is chronic.
Routines can help alleviate stress by removing the number of daily decisions that need to made.
"Having to decide all of these things each day takes it out of us," she said, noting that her routine at this point is aspirational.
The best way to deal with persistent uncertainty, Damour counseled, is to divide problems into two categories: those you can do something about and those you can't. And then stop fighting the things you cannot control.
"This is the simplest advice and the hardest thing to do," she said. "The advice here is to practice acceptance and just let it go as much as you can."
Establishing a good breathing practice through yoga or meditation can make a real difference.
"Meditation has actually ritualized acceptance, which is hugely valuable at times like this," she said.
Parents can help kids through this time by giving them some control, predictability and quality parent interactions.
She suggests agreeing to a portion of the day when kids are "off the clock," say from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
"As long as you are taking care of your business, I will stay out of your business," she recommended saying. "Designate times when kids are not accountable to you."
Having fun is critical, she said, noting that her daughters have instituted costume nights for dinner.
"It's hilarious," Damour related. "Is it exactly what I want to do at 6 o'clock? Not always.
"It's not icing," she stressed. "It's cake. Having these positive, enjoyable times with each other is actually critical to getting them through the chronic stress experience."
In response to questions from parents relayed by moderator Cara Hurley, a licensed psychologist from Hinsdale, Damour said adults should be mindful of how much and what type of information their children are getting about COVID-19.
"With younger kids, we probably want to be very careful with how much information they are getting or how," she said, noting that some news coverage tends to overestimate danger and underestimate resources. "For teens, have them look at good information. If they are curious, they can handle it."
She encouraged parents who asked about their kids' motivation to offer some incentives.
"Here is what I am hearing everywhere: Kids have zero motivation. It's not your kid," she said.
She wrote a piece for the New York Times in which she compared kids' view of the current situation as "all vegetables, no dessert."
"Who wants that for dinner?" she asked.
"Don't underestimate carrots," she said. "It's great if kids have intrinsic motivation. If they don't have it right now, that's not a problem. Extrinsic motivation is fine. I'm 50 years old in my dream job and I still have to use extrinsic motivation."
Her rules about screen time have not changed during these days of sheltering at home, she said.
"Too much screen time is screen time that undermines the ability to get a good night's sleep, gets in the way of physical activity, gets in the way of time with family, gets in the way of meaningful work, gets in the way of helping around the house," she said. "First figure out what you're for, and then put the screen time around the edges of that."
Damour encouraged parents to "pour on the empathy" when kids are distraught about the cancellation of special events like prom and graduation and even fifth-grade clap outs.
"What's so hard is there is no fix. We can say, 'Yeah, we'll do it in September. It will be just as good.' It won't be just as good," she said.
While no one would have wished for the current situation, she said it offers a unique opportunity to clear up the cultural misunderstanding that good mental health means you feel good.
"Mental health is that you have the right feeling at the right time and you can stand it," Damour said.
People who go through hard times learn to be less frightened of discomfort and find other challenges are less troubling. Learning to live with distress is an important life skill.
"They will be more durable going forward and they will have more personal freedom going forward," she said. "To me, that's big - and that's what we can do with this thing we otherwise can't fix."