A Brief Overview
- How can families manage stress during the COVID-19 crisis? This article includes a few ideas to help you get organized, explore big feelings within your family and breathe.
- PAVE provides two five-minute videos with mindfulness practices: Calm the Worry Monkey with Hot Chocolate Breath and Breathe with Plants and Trees.
- Another quick takeaway is a 90-second video from Sesame Street: Big Feelings.
- For serious conditions related to mental health and to find a provider, contact the Washington Recovery Help Line: 866-789-1511.
Big feelings are happening. We feel them, and we care for others who are having them. Times of uncertainly cause stress that makes big feelings feel bigger. Emotions might seem to run away with all the energy we had left. It can feel hard to breathe, and it’s easy to lose a sense of control over what happens within the span of a day.
Taking time to pause and organize the days ahead can help, especially if mindfulness and breath practices are built into the schedule.
Here’s a to-do list for every day
- Have a plan
- Be real with big feelings
The rest of this article provides ideas about these three strategies. Please note that resources included are not affiliated with PAVE, and PAVE does not recommend or endorse these programs or services.
Organize the day to create predictability
Getting organized with a clear routine is helpful because predictability calms the nervous system, suggests the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). CASEL offered a webinar in early April to help parents and educators explore Social Emotional Learning (SEL) during the stay-home order related to COVID-19.
A key presenter was Jennifer Miller, founder of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, which provides an article for parents: Setting up for Homework Success. Miller offers a video describing how to establish a morning routine to give each day a predictable jump-start. She advises families to schedule intentional moments for loving connection throughout each day. For example, one of her family’s rituals is a hallway hug first thing out of bed.
To support children in feeling safe, confident and in control, Miller recommends that adults plan-ahead to speak out loud when they notice children taking care of business: “I notice you are getting dressed…brushing teeth…feeding the dog… all by yourself.”
Predictability, contribution and accomplishment are all feelings that calm the brain and can be part of making and maintaining a family schedule. Miller advises that all members of the family work together to design the plan.
The family’s daily schedule can include a wake-up routine, movement, nature time, academics, rest time, meals and shared cooking/cleaning, screen time, art time, chores, reading, bath time, bedtime…. The schedule can have words and/or pictures and should be posted where everyone can refer to it.
Generally, children respond well to having some built-in choices and a variety of brain breaks. Sample family schedules are easy to search for online; families might prefer to design their own format, just for them.
Here are some places to look for ideas:
- Mother.ly shares a mom’s family schedule that “went viral” during the pandemic.
- Get-Organized-Mom.com offers printable forms and samples for how to use them.
- Adding Homeschool to an online search brings up a wide selection of options, some for free and some with a small cost.
Feel big feelings, and let others feel theirs too
Generally, humans are emotional. We feel, and we respond to what we feel. Squished emotions usually don’t go away but loom larger. Here are a few strategies for being with big feelings:
Talk openly: Big feelings can be more manageable when they are spoken and shared. Ask another person, What are you feeling right now? Listen without judgment or analysis. Here’s one way to respond: Wow, that’s a lot to feel. Tell me more. A Sesame Street program called Here for Each Other offers a 90-second video posted to YouTube to help adults talk to children about Big Feelings. To help families discuss feelings specifically related to COVID-19, PBS.org provides toolkits in English and Spanish.
Name it to tame it: Dan Siegel, a neuroscientist, recommends calling out emotions in order to manage them. Here’s a short video: Name it to tame it. To make brain science practical, Siegel talks about an upstairs brain and a downstairs brain. When the downstairs brain (emotion) controls the show, the upstairs brain (learning/problem-solving) clicks offline. Here are some ideas for what to do if someone is overwhelmed by emotion:
- Create a safe physical space: Offer a drink of water, a blanket, a stuffed animal.
- Keep a kind voice, move slowly, and back away/get low if your energy might feel like a threat (if you are a bigger or have more power, for example).
- Turn down lights or turn on music if that makes sense for the other person.
- Say something to simply acknowledge the big feelings: “I understand that (this is hard, makes you mad, scares you…).”
- Allow enough time for the brain finds a way back “upstairs.”
- When things are calm, work together to describe the big feelings and the experience of being with those feelings.
Use pictures to identify emotions: Charts to help identify emotions are easy to find. Here’s a link on Pinterest with dozens of examples of printable or hand-made options. Making a chart together can create learning on many levels. A teacher might have a feelings chart to share.
Notice that feelings aren’t who you are: This strategy is from a meditation technique called Integrative Restoration (iRest.org). Notice a feeling as separate from the bigger picture of who you really are. Here’s a statement to sort that out: I have feelings, but I’m not my feelings. What happens when that statement is made? Is it possible to catch feelings in the act of forming or changing? This can be a conversation you have in your own mind or with another person.
Explore feelings through the body: This technique is common in yoga. Ask someone else or yourself: What feelings are happening right now, and where is the body feeling them? Talk about how a feeling seems to “live” in a certain place—or travel around the body. There is no good, bad, right or wrong way to feel. Give yourself or a family member permission to move around and maybe make sound in a way that safely helps the emotion express itself. GoNoodle.com offers additional strategies for children to explore movement and mindfulness.
Schedule mindfulness: Make sure that big feelings have time to be seen and heard. According to an article for parents from the Child Mind Institute, “Designating time to practice mindful activities as a family will help everyone feel less anxious. It could be a daily family yoga session, or a quiet walk in the woods as a group, taking time to focus on the way the air feels, the sound of the birds and the smell of the trees. Another good family mindfulness idea is asking everyone to mention one good thing they heard or saw that day over dinner.” The Child Mind Institute provides access to live video chats with clinicians, telemedicine and more. The agency provides guidance in English and Spanish and offers parents an opportunity to sign up for a COVID-19 tip of the day.
Breathe with trees and plants
A calming breath works like a life vest when it feels like emotions are rushing us downriver and threatening to take us under. The basic goal is to regulate the flow of oxygen into the bloodstream and to make sure that carbon dioxide is being expelled in a balanced way. Here’s one idea for a breath that might boost relaxation:
- Find a place where you can see a tree or a plant. Notice details about the leaves, needles or branches.
- Note that trees and plants release oxygen into the air.
- Breathe in gently and feel like the plant or tree is giving oxygen to you.
- Breathe out gently and consider that your carbon dioxide is the food the tree or plant needs.
- Experience a moment of being grateful that nature is breathing with you. Say thank you if it feels good to say it out loud.
PAVE provides a 5-minute video to help you breathe with trees and plants!
Feeling panic? Breathe easy and smooth
When anxiety causes feelings of panic, easy is the magic word for breathing. Some evidence suggests that a stressed-out person might feel more anxious by taking breaths that are too slow or deep. Dizziness, shortness of breath and feelings of suffocation can be signs that the gases exchanged during a breath aren’t balanced well. Here’s one source for information about why even breathing might be more calming than a really big, deep breath: LiveScience.com.
Here’s something to practice regularly to help your body find its calm, easy breath:
- Notice your breath and just watch it for a little bit.
- Start counting as you inhale and notice how long that lasts.
- Start to match the inhale count and the exhale count.
- Don’t try to slow your breath down, but gently try to make each breath about the same, counting the same time on the inhale and the exhale.
- Don’t work to fill or empty your lungs all the way. Keep it easy.
- Try breathing evenly for at least a minute—longer if you enjoy it.
Bonus Ideas: Consider whether there’s a young person in your house who could learn this breath, practice and then teach it to someone else. Another idea is for a child to practice breathing with a stuffed animal. On their tummy, the stuffed animal goes for a ride. Being hugged, the animal can feel the breath too.
PAVE hopes the ideas in this article might help your family members organize themselves around days and weeks at home that might nourish everyone with moments of peace, personal growth and learning. Understanding how to be with big feelings and breathe with ease can take a bit of practice, but the result can build emotional resilience. We hope all can find simple ways to make emotional learning and self-care part of each day to support the well-being of all.
If you need direct support in caring for children with special educational or medical needs, please click Get Help from our home page, wapave.org.
For serious conditions related to mental health and to find a professional provider, contact the Washington Recovery Help Line: 866-789-1511.
The WA State Department of Health provides a Behavioral Health Toolbox for Families Supporting Children and Teens During the COVID-19 Pandemic, published in July 2020. Each age-specific section (toddlers, school-age children, teens) includes information on common emotional responses, helping children heal and grow, and managing feelings and behaviors children may experience.