Ask Dr. Paul: Ways to help your family cope with the pandemic

It’s important to address stress, anxiety and any other issues caused by the COVID-19 emergency.

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all areas of our lives and presenting new challenges for families everywhere. School cancellations, orders to stay home and working remotely are forcing everyone to quickly adapt to a “new normal.” It’s important we address family issues and challenges, including stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic.

Let’s look at ways to help families get through these trying times.

Q: My teenage daughter has shut herself in her room most of the day. I’m really worried about her. What should I do?

A: The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted the lives of millions of kids. School provides youth with structure and provides easy social opportunities. School closures, while necessary, are hard on kids and parents. Teens struggle with an uncertain future, as well as worries about how this will impact their friends, their family and older relatives. They may also grapple with feelings of guilt when they have very normal feelings of loss when contemplating missing graduations, proms and other social events that are important to them. Like us, many of them are scared, sad and mad.

Knock on her door, sit on her bed and ask her how she’s managing. Ask her what she’s thinking, feeling and doing. Maybe she’s spending the day talking with friends or viewing her social media feed. Perhaps she’s watching YouTube videos. Maybe she’s just staring at the wall — worrying.

Listen. Ask questions. Don’t give advice or lecture. Don’t provide false reassurance. Do acknowledge and validate her feelings. Stick to the facts. Ask her what she thinks might help her feel better. Make her participate and come up with her own ideas and plans.

Help create structure. Establish a wake-up and bed time, a schedule of activities, a time for school work, family time, exercise, chores and cooking. This may be a good opportunity for kids to help with house projects. Include your daughter in developing the structure. Negotiate on the small stuff. But be Attila the Hun on the important stuff.

Limit screen time. I know it’s tough, but kids (and some adults) need to learn how to structure their lives without being entertained. Be reasonable about how much time you allow, but then stick to the limits you set.

Q: My wife has always been a worrier. Now she seems to be spiraling out of control. What can I do?

A: This is scary time for everyone, but even worse for kids and adults who are worriers on a good day. Anxiety can spiral out of control — obsessive hand-washing, fretting over whether something is contaminated with the virus, emotional meltdowns, disrupted sleep, or getting stuck on some small detail.

It’s also tempting to watch a lot of TV news. Television news can be negative and cause worry. For worriers, this can like pouring gasoline on an already roaring fire. While it’s important to stay informed with accurate information, try turning off the news and picking up a book or finding some other calming way to engage your mind and body.

Listen to your wife’s concerns without making suggestions, giving advice or telling her that she’s overreacting. Ask her how she wants to handle these concerns. Encourage her to list all her worries, without looking for a solution for each one. Making a “worry list” can be very helpful. Suggest a walk together. Moving in space can change what and how we’re thinking.

Most of all, keep your own cool. All of us tend to absorb the emotions of others. Let your wife soak up your calm.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog. Do you have a behavioral-health question related to COVID-19? Sending your questions to askdrpaul@everettclinic.com.

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