How can I ease my child’s holiday gathering anxiety? Q&A with Dr. Maria Zimmitti

How can I ease my child’s holiday gathering anxiety? Q&A with Dr. Maria Zimmitti

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It’s been a long time since we’ve had a family get-together. What can I do if my child is feeling anxious or shy about seeing everyone?

Keep in mind that a year and a half in the life of a child feels much longer than it does in the mind of an adult. So, we can expect that they very well may be anxious or shy about seeing people after a long period of time. Having that mindset can help parents understand why this might be challenging for their child from their perspective. First, it’s important to normalize this in a very non-judgmental manner. Then, collaboratively problem solve ways to reduce the anxiety with your child. You may say something along the lines of, “We are getting together with our extended family for the first time in a while, which can feel a bit scary/intimidating/overwhelming. It’s okay to feel nervous. Let’s brainstorm ways of making this feel a bit more comfortable for you. We can review names and ages of family members, look at photos of them so they feel more familiar, video chat with them before the gathering, create a quiet space you can go to if you need a break during the get together, etc. Do you have any other ideas?” Involving the child in this type of conversation will help them to feel more in control and better prepared for an unfamiliar situation.

My child already had social anxiety and the time apart has made it worse. How can I help? 

This is a very common trend that we are seeing a lot of within our practice. The pandemic for kids with social anxiety was a relief in many ways. Quarantine removed the anxiety-provoking stimulus, social interaction, which means they were able to be in their comfort zone for an extended period of time. As holidays, school, and other activities are resuming, kids with pre-existing social anxiety are experiencing an amplification of symptoms, which is exactly what we would expect.

Imagine. You are fearful of public speaking and your job requires it. You don’t enjoy it, but with practice you’ve learned some skills for reducing your anxiety. Then, a career change occurs and you no longer have to give those dreaded presentations anymore. Relief and comfort ensue. But then, there is a change in leadership and your new boss suddenly requires daily presentations. Panic ensues. You feel worried, this feels foreign, you lost your skill, and you forget how to cope.

This is exactly what kids with social anxiety are experiencing right now. Helping to see the struggle from their perspective will give you patience, insight, and compassion when working with them to overcome this hardship. Tell them that social skills are sort of like a muscle. With practice, they strengthen over time. However, during the pandemic, that muscle was not used as much and became pretty weak. The good news is that we can restrengthen muscles! With parent support, they can ease into uncomfortable situations to practice strengthening the muscle. Each time they do this, the muscle grows and they can do more and more each time. This type of treatment is called graduated exposure and we strongly recommend that work with a trained therapist to help facilitate this process.

What if my child is worried about covid? 

As always, let them know that it’s okay to have some concerns and that you are available to discuss them whenever they arise. Setting aside some time to listen to whatever worries are on your child’s mind will let them know that you are available and they are not alone, which can be a huge relief. When discussing their concerns, be mindful of the amount of reassurance that you are providing to your anxious child. You may find that your child becomes dependent on the reassurance and begins seeking it more and more, which can actually worsen their anxiety when they aren’t able to get the reassurance they are looking for. Rather, remind your child of the safety measures that your family and their school have put in place to take care of them in order to model how they might redirect anxious thoughts.

What can I do if I’m also feeling anxious or nervous?

Some of the anxiety that you are experiencing may be inadvertently passed on to your child, so it’s crucial that you take care of yourself so that you can better take care of your child. Do your best to stay present, avoid too much media intake, and notice your thought process. Are you catastrophizing (thinking of worst case scenarios), getting carried away with “what if” statements, filtering all of your thoughts through a negative lens while ignoring positive or neutral aspects (focusing on number of positive cases rather than low % positive rate)? Take some time to become more aware of what thoughts pass through your mind and see if you can create some space between you and the thoughts. I’m not asking you to change your thoughts in any way. That’s actually very difficult to do. Instead, notice them and return to whatever action you are doing in the moment. The key is to engage in this process without passing judgment (“I’m so bad at this.”). This will help you to not get carried away by the anxious thoughts and model a calm, mindful presence for your child.


Maria Zimmitti, Ph.D. is the Founder and Clinical Director of Georgetown Psychology and Co-Founder of Helix Center in McLean, VA. Dr. Zimmitti is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 20 years of experience evaluating and treating children, adolescents, and families. She has been featured in numerous media outlets, including CNN, ABC7, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and Parenting Magazine to provide her expertise on topics related to child and adolescent mental health and parenting.

How to Foster Resilience through Social Connection and Gratitude

How to Foster Resilience through Social Connection and Gratitude

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When building resilience in children, we aim to boost confidence in their ability to react to and cope with challenging situations. All children can learn to bounce back from disappointments and strengthen their emotional well-being. This ability is enhanced when they don’t have to face adversity alone. In fact, studies show that social connection—specifically the support we receive from others—has a profound impact on how resilient we are.

Healthy relationships provide us with love, trust, and the sense that we can relate to one another. When we’re going through a hard time, the understanding and advice we receive from others help us cope effectively. After a year and a half of isolation from family and friends, youth are finally reconnecting. Navigating this new landscape of social interaction requires patience and adaptability. Here are three ways you can help your child foster healthy social connections:

Play a supportive role in your child’s friendships. Friendships are critical to developing social skills such as acknowledging the perspective of others, having conversations, and problem-solving. Encourage your child to catch up with old friends and make new ones, perhaps by helping arrange a play date or getting them involved in after school activities. Keep in mind that there will be times when your child gets into a disagreement with a friend. In these situations, you can model respectful behavior and offer suggestions, but ultimately allow them to make decisions about how they will resolve the problem. It is important that children learn from their mistakes so that they can be proactive the next time they encounter conflict.

Schedule quality time to check-in. Pick one day of the week where you ask your child, “What went well this week?” “What were some things you struggled with?” and “What can I do to help?” Checking in with these questions allows you to celebrate what went well and acknowledge their concerns. You can validate your child’s struggles as they arise by saying, “I understand why that was hard” and then coming up with a plan together to overcome difficult situations.  Additionally, use this time to participate in your favorite activities that bring you closer. By holding this space to connect consistently, even during busy times, you cultivate a safe and supportive environment.

Practice gratitude often. Gratitude is all about acknowledging the events, experiences, and people in our lives that we cherish. Feeling appreciated by our loved ones brings us closer together, so tell your children why you’re grateful for them and encourage them to do the same. Try leaving each other little thank you notes or sending texts when you think of one another. Keep in mind that practicing gratitude is not just something we do for others but also for ourselves. It’s not meant to erase our negative experiences but to instead acknowledge the good around us despite them. Gratitude is a way of reframing our perspective and gaining self-control, which are critical components of resilience. One quick practice you can introduce is keeping a journal in which you and your child list the people and moments you appreciate daily, whether they’re big or small.

Three Ways to Help Kids As They Start (Another) Uncertain School Year

Three Ways to Help Kids As They Start (Another) Uncertain School Year

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Whether or not they say it out loud, many kids are apprehensive about starting school. On top of the normal anxiety, they’re processing pandemic-related concerns. Whether your child is full of excitement or dread (or both), it’s not hard to relate. As the comedy writer Matt Buechele put it recently, “We are rounding the corner, and what is around the next corner? It is … another corner.” Leaning on humor won’t end COVID, but it could help us summon the reserves for another year of disruption.

Here are three other ways you can help your kids manage uncertainty and engage fully in their lives:

Normalize fears and plan together

In a normal school year, kids may worry that they’ll get on the wrong bus or have no one to sit with at lunch. But now, they also have to worry about following COVID protocols, seeing friends they haven’t seen in 18 months, and sustaining stamina after so much time at home.

Try to get a sense of their concerns, then troubleshoot together. Perhaps it would help to start following a new schedule now or come up with a system for tracking and handing in work. If they’re worried about finding their way around or understanding new rules, take advantage of mock days or other orientation activities. You could even read the school handbook together.

Socially, kids could arrange to meet someone for lunch on the first day, or schedule an after-school playdate with a familiar, trusted friend. Reassure them that you can reassess and tweak the plan with them if it’s not working.

Stay calm and lower the pressure

Acknowledge that we’re living through challenging times and validate their anxieties. Kids know when adults are not at their peak, so be authentic. Tell them when you’re dysregulated and how you plan to manage your feelings. Ideally, kids “catch our calm,” but that’s not always possible. If you lose your cool, circle back to them and apologize.

This is particularly important if you find yourself battling over grades or homework. Many kids have taken a hit to their academic self-concept during the pandemic. And while all kids are still learning to manage school demands, it’s even harder to stay focused and organized when your world has been turned inside out.

In response to that loss of control, some kids have developed a new obsession with grades. Their perfectionism could make it hard for them to get started—or stop—working. Others are overwhelmed and don’t know how to ask for help. Try to get at the root of the problem. Do they need help breaking down an assignment? Do they need a break? Do they need help emailing a teacher or setting realistic expectations?

On the flip side, look for ways to make homework fun. If the stakes feel too high, kids can tense up and fail to produce anything. I recently spoke to Martin Reeves, co-author of The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company’s Future, who suggests turning homework into a game whenever possible. He’ll have his kids ask and answer a homework question faster and faster until they break down laughing. Or he’ll have them imagine the worst possible way to complete a project. The point is to make learning playful. As he noted, “You won’t hear anyone say, ‘I just played with my Lego and it was a real grind.’”

Set realistic social expectations

Kids are understandably concerned about their social status after so much time apart. This one is tricky, because their fears are not unfounded. Their friendships are likely to change, even without a pandemic. To help them manage these fears, assure them everyone is feeling the same way and help them think more expansively.

Ask, “What can you do if you need to shift groups or make new friends?” Help them think about social skills, too. You might ask, “How can you join a conversation or find common ground?” Put them back in the driver’s seat by asking, “What are the traits you look for in a friend? How can you recognize when you’ve outgrown one? How can you create distance without burning a bridge?” Help them understand that no one friend could possibly meet all of their needs, and that it’s healthy to broaden their network. Share examples from your own life. Perhaps there’s one friend who you like to go jogging with and another who you count on to make you laugh when you’re feeling down.

Which brings me back to humor. As Buechele also noted: “Look, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Is it oncoming traffic? Maybe.” Whatever we find on the other side of that tunnel, we can ease kids’ journey by lightening the mood and giving them back a sense of agency.

Phyllis L. Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, is the author of “Middle School Matters,” the school counselor at Sheridan School and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com.

Support Your Child’s Well-being During the Pandemic and Beyond

Support Your Child’s Well-being During the Pandemic and Beyond

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The same guidelines that were introduced to protect us from COVID-19 have also negatively impacted many children’s emotional wellness. In my work as a child psychologist, I have witnessed a shared experience of grief among children in the last 1.5 years because of their inability to celebrate birthdays with friends, visit their grandparents or other family members, and engage in enjoyable activities in which they once participated routinely. When opportunities such as these are restricted, the feelings of sadness and loss that may ensue are normal, valid, and logical. Although some of the COVID-19 limits have been lifted, re-establishing your child’s baseline functioning and mood to be the same as they were prior to the pandemic may require time and effort. Fortunately, there are strategies that you can implement to prevent sadness’s persistence or a potential downward spiral.

An important first step is to examine the things that mattered most to your child before the pandemic across different life areas, such as relationships (with you, their friends, classmates, siblings, other family, teachers, coaches, etc.), school, hobbies, and daily responsibilities. This exploration will give you clues as to what gives your child’s life meaning, even at this young age, and suggest ways to build in activities within each life area that reflect your child’s values. Living a meaningful life protects us from prolonged periods of sadness and improves our general well-being. It is important to consider as many life areas as possible to make sure that you encourage balance in your child’s life.

Here are some guiding questions that may help in this quest:

  1. Enjoyment: What were some pleasurable activities in which your child used to participate? When did you notice that they were happiest? What activities would they most look forward to?
  2. Connection: Who was your child happiest with? Who do they feel like they could be themselves with? Who could they talk or hang out for hours at a time? Who would they most want to invite over?
  3. Mastery: What were some of the activities that made your child feel accomplished or productive? When did your child feel a sense of pride? What were some of the activities that led them to experience higher self-esteem?

Although there may still be restrictions on some activities, there may be creative ways to simulate them or even accomplish them, at least for the time being. For example, if your child enjoyed going to the movie theater, you could organize a movie night at home by asking them to select the movie and prepare popcorn and drinks. If you are not yet comfortable spending time with others outside the family, you could encourage telephone or computer dates, outside activities, or other ways of communicating that would foster connection.

After selecting activities that promise to offer enjoyment, connection, and a sense of mastery, begin scheduling them for your child. You may want to start slow, depending on your child’s current level of activity. If you have an older child or adolescent, you can certainly engage them in this discussion and planning.


Note: In more severe cases, sadness can persist over a prolonged period and be accompanied by symptoms like fatigue, irritability, and changes in sleep and appetite, and we consider the presence of depression. Other core symptoms of depression include a pervasive lack of enjoyment and motivation. In cases in which a child exhibits these symptoms, we recommend scheduling a consultation with a mental health professional promptly. It is also important to communicate with your child’s pediatrician.

Help Your Child Overcome Reentry Anxiety

Help Your Child Overcome Reentry Anxiety

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As vaccinations increase and the prevalence of COVID decreases, restrictions have lessened, and life has been coming back to a new “normal.”  The transition back to life after this difficult year brings with it many different emotions.  While many children are excited to return to in-person school, sports and activities, they often also express worries.  Here are some tips on how to help your child with the transition.

Validate
Let your child know that it makes sense to find transitions both exciting and scary, and that you understand it. Even our pets are reacting to the shift back toward no longer having us home as much! Many kids have recently expressed fears about COVID, making friends, or starting new activities. Often in our attempts to soothe our kids we say, “don’t worry” or “that won’t happen.”  Instead, let them know that you get it: “It makes sense to feel worried about being inside with unmasked adults after being told to avoid that for over a year. I get why that is confusing for you!” or “I understand that it’s hard starting a camp when you don’t know anyone yet.”

Act confident
Often, we share our children’s fears, or are worried about how they will feel, which makes coping even harder.  Work together with your child to check the facts and develop a plan to cope.  For example, if your daughter is worried about COVID, you can help her look at the data on decreasing rates, read new studies together about the risk in children and outdoors, and learn about the safety procedures of the places she is going.  If children are worried about making new friends or being away from a parent after a year stuck together all the time, plan with them about how they can engage with peers and what to do when missing home.  Most importantly, act as though you know they can handle the situation and any uncomfortable feelings that may pop up.

Go slow
Transitions do not need to be all or nothing. Practice reentering life in a gradual manner: If a child is nervous about going to crowded places again, start with a small playdate or medium-size birthday party, or a hike on a trail that may be more crowded.  If your child is clinging to Purell when out and about, rather than removing it altogether, discuss when it is and is not necessary and practice using it slightly less.  Practice small adjustments outside of your child’s comfort zone until they feel ready for the next step.

Reward
After children practice facing new or uncomfortable situations, it is helpful to reward them. Let them know you are proud of them and allow them a special treat or activity to reinforce their success.

Consider what parts of this year you want to include in your “new normal”
While this past year involved many losses, both of loved ones and of missed milestones and activities, there have been some aspects that many have enjoyed. Some parents have enjoyed not commuting and spending more time with their kids. Some kids have preferred more unstructured time to play and less pressure. Discuss with your child what you each hope your new normal may look like as COVID wanes and what new limits may need to be reinstated, such as reduced screen time, as we can safely reenter society.

Proactive Parenting During the Pandemic and Beyond

Proactive Parenting During the Pandemic and Beyond

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COVID-19’s enduring toll on us hasn’t just been physical – it’s been mental and emotional, too. None have been hit harder than you, the parents. You’ve held squirmy toddlers during conference calls, done dishes while supervising kindergarten over Zoom, and helped your confused and lonely teenager make sense of the “new normal” late at night. This is backed up by studies: researchers at Duke University surveyed over 600 parents and found that their well-being declined during the pandemic and worsened as the number of hardships encountered (e.g., income loss, illness, and caregiving burden) increased. In our clinical practice, parents often ask, “How can I best support my child during this difficult time and beyond?”

To answer this question, we turn to resilience — the process by which we adapt positively to stressors. The good news: You can help your kids become more resilient in many ways. Let’s start with perhaps the most important factor: Proactive parenting, the practice of being attentive to your child’s needs and intentional in how you respond to them.

Proactive parents are…

  1. Consistent but flexible. During this period of uncertainty, you’ve likely struggled to maintain routines and behavioral standards. Maybe you’ve used TV as a last-ditch babysitter during work calls; or allowed your child to stay up extra late for some family time. If you have, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s true that children function best with structure. Routines help them learn about the world, operate at their best, and feel comforted and calm during stressful times. Yet, we also must model flexibility and compassion for our children. For instance, you can enforce limits on non-social activities such as gaming, surfing the internet, or watching television, but allow your child reasonable time to FaceTime with friends. As the weather becomes warmer, your family may benefit from sitting down to discuss the importance of exercising, spending time outdoors, and sticking to a regular sleep schedule. You could also brainstorm ways to implement those healthy habits every day.
  2. Loving and supportive. Many children turn to parents during difficult times, and you have a choice in how you respond. When discussing upsetting topics, aim to be a “coping model” rather than a “mastery model.” For example, you can say: “I understand it is really disappointing that you can’t have a large birthday party. I’m also sad about some of the events that we’ve had to miss this year. Maybe we can figure out a way to celebrate safely?” You can guide your child to name their feelings, so that they become familiar and manageable. Of course, it is important for you to cope constructively with your anxieties, as well as reasonably limit the amount of time you spend reading or watching the news. Families can embrace the extra time at home by starting new, fun activities, such as “Friday pizza and movie night.”
  3. Attentive to their own self-care, which may otherwise be neglected due to the increased demands of child-rearing during the pandemic. Ask yourself, “What are my non-negotiables?” Maybe yours include plenty of sleep at night, wind-down time each day to read, or blocking out breaks to exercise. Don’t neglect your own support systems too: Now more than ever, we need our friends and family. Remember: Self care isn’t selfish. When you model self-care and optimism for your children, you embody self-compassion, and, importantly, hope.