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North Merrick School District holds webinar on child anxiety

Tips offered to parents to help their kids cope

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Living through the Covid-19 pandemic is undeniably an unprecedented experience. On top of the usual stresses of life, things that once offered structure, such as work or school, are now met with uncertainty. While parents deal with the new hardships, their children have had to adapt to the unfamiliar — social distancing, quarantining at home and prolonged school closures — potentially introducing high levels of anxiety and, in turn, harmful coping habits.

To help parents guide their kids through coping with anxiety, the North Merrick School District hosted a special webinar on Friday with Dr. Jonathan Dalton of the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change. The Herald attended the session to share Dalton’s tips on identifying signs of anxiety and what you can do to make it a positive motivator.

“A Shadow of a Strength”

“Absolutely, we are in unprecedented times,” Dalton said to the audience on Zoom. “But I want to spark a little bit of hope and optimism: Appropriate skills can be used to cope effectively with anxiety, whether it’s a disordered anxiety or for individuals with really appropriate levels of anxiety.”

Some kids are “uniquely vulnerable” to having anxiety, but it’s not a weakness or a flaw, Dalton urged — “it’s a shadow of a strength.” For children who are intelligent, creative and compassionate, “the universe seems to throw anxiety in for free” like a “packaged deal,” he said.

Rather than it being an indication of a problem, Dalton prefers to see it as “what’s right — it’s the shadow cast by these great virtues,” he said. When kids are armed with coping techniques, those values “remain fully present.”

“In my opinion, they’re better off having gone through it, because they’re learning things about themselves and the world they couldn’t have learned any other way,” Dalton said. “They’re learning how to overrule the urge to avoid as a way to cope with their stress and to pursue their values, not just their comfort. These are important life skills, not just management skills.”

"What makes anxiety become disordered?” 

“Anxiety is something we don’t want to get rid of,” Dalton said. It’s evolutionally designed to alert us to potential danger, keeps us safe and prevent us from repeating mistakes. What makes anxiety a disorder is not about the intensity of the anxiety, but rather if it’s appropriate for the situation.

Dalton used a smoke alarm as an example: If it’s going off, the alarm sounds the same whether you’ve burnt your toast, or your curtains are on fire. For those with a disordered anxiety, intensity may be high during inappropriate scenarios.

Amid the current pandemic, more than half of American adults are reporting high levels of anxiety related to the Covid-19 virus, Dalton said. Sixteen percent of adults have significant enough anxiety that they seek treatment. For many with an anxiety disorder, it emerges during childhood.

Avoidance

A cornerstone of an anxiety disorder is unnecessary avoidance. Dalton describes avoidant anxiety as an “allergic reaction to uncertainty,” where kids will neglect attending school and completing assignments due to building anxiety.

If there are children avoiding school purely because of anxiety, “that’s where we want to work hard to build non-avoidant coping skills, because anxiety and avoidance are teammates; they work on the same side,” Dalton said. Parents should firmly expect kids to attend school reasonably, while still acknowledging health concerns.

Anxious kids being taught remotely at home are “living their best lives,” Dalton said. They’re in a comfortable space, not facing the usual triggers for anxiety. Most kids, Dalton added, will feel a significant amount of stress when they must return to school, but most will also be resilient through the process.

“If we can decrease the use of avoidant coping, then the anxiety disorder will die a natural death,” Dalton said.

Proper ways to cope

To help children being schooled at home, a routine lifestyle should be maintained, Dalton said. It’s an uncertain time, but times for waking up, going to bed and eating meals should remain consistent. Whether kids return to school in September in-person, remotely or in a hybrid form, meal and activity times between students should be similar.

“We’ve never had a greater need for connectivity, nor more obstacles towards connectivity,” Dalton added. Before school starts, parents can gradually practice having their kids be near other kids in outside playdates while wearing masks. This can help kids feel more comfortable while also building sanitary skills, such as proper social distancing and hand washing.

Creativity also buds in children during times of distress, Dalton said. When back at school, mental health and art teams can help students remain resilient by giving them opportunities to express themselves.

Thus, Dalton’s recommended coping skills are boiled down to three C’s: consistency, connectivity and creativity. He also said kids should also be encouraged to be optimistic and confident, and to understand that when facing these uncertain times, “they can be scared and brave at the same time,” Dalton said.

To watch Dr. Jonathan Dalton’s full presentation with the North Merrick School District, visit their website at www.nmerrickschools.org.