A wonderful guest blog post from occupational therapist Katie Zelinski on ways to cope with stress and anxiety - perfect for all year round, but especially during these uncertain times with COVID-19.
With all the changes in routines, not getting as much time to play outside, and having limited interactions with family and friends, we have to expect that our kids are going to be more dysregulated than usual.
Dysregulation looks different for everyone. It might appear as silly, irritable, easily frustrated, anxious, angry, needy, super high energy, impulsive, tired, stressed, etc.
However our kids might act, it’s their body’s way of processing what’s happening in the world around them and trying to cope.
No matter what season of change you are in, the following suggestions and activities are great ways to teach coping strategies and improve regulation for all our little (and big) ones:
1. BREATH WORK
Our breath is so connected to our ability to regulate our bodies. When we hold our breath, which many of us do when we are stressed, we are trapping carbon dioxide in our bodies which can lead to higher anxiety levels while limiting the amount of oxygen available to our body. As adults, we learn to meditate or enjoy yoga. We may take to running, not only for the physical benefits but also for the repetitive breath it encourages. Teaching children to inhale through their nose and exhale through their mouth is an important coping strategy that will serve them for years.
Ideally, the exhale should be longer than the inhale.
Side note: if your child is having a moment of really big feelings and their breath is disorganized, instead of reminding them to breathe, model it yourself. As the adults they look up to, we can help them cope and regulate more effectively by doing, not just telling.
What you’ll need:
- A small container filled 1/3 of the way with water
- A dash of soap
- A straw (you can use a bubble straw if you're worried your kiddo might accidentally suck instead of blow)
Inhale through the nose, exhale through the straw and watch the bubbles grow.
What you’ll need:
- Water based paint (either acrylic or water color). You may need extra water to thin the paint as you want it to be a little runny
- Card stock or thick paper
- A straw
- A paintbrush
- Marker/googley eyes
Place a glob of paint on the paper then use the straw to blow the paint in various directions. Once dry, you can use a marker or google eyes to turn them into little creatures.
Smell the Flower, Blow out the Candle:
Above is a great visual that reminds kids exactly how to breathe.
2. ORAL INPUT
Think back to a recent stressful situation. Maybe a first date, a presentation at work, or an interview. As adults we might chew gum or on straws, suck on candy, or eat crunchy foods to regulate our nervous system and calm our anxieties.
During periods of stress you may notice your child biting their nails, chewing on pencil tops, putting everything in their mouth, or sucking on their hair. Both chewing and sucking provide our mouths with proprioceptive input that is both calming and regulating to our nervous system. But the aforementioned habits aren't always safe or age appropriate. Here are some functional ways to provide oral input:
(The following options may require parent supervision depending on the age and cognitive level of your child)
- If your child is a chewer, chewelry is an excellent option that can stay with them all day long. You pick the firmness (regular or extra tough or extra extra tough) to make sure they are getting the input they need. The necklaces come with a breakaway cord for a safe and cool way to wear it.
- If your child is chewing on pencil tops, these chewable pencil covers are a great substitute.
- Crunchy foods
- Gum (if they are not going to swallow it)
- Ice chips
- Thick liquids through a straw (yogurt, applesauce, smoothie, purees)
- Use of silly straws or cocktail straws for thin liquids
- CamelBak water bottle where you have to bite and suck in order to retrieve water.
- Use a straw to transfer small pom-poms (but ones that are larger than the straw opening) from the table to a bowl by placing the straw over the pom and sucking in until you can release it in the bowl. See picture above.
3. WHOLE BODY MOVEMENT
Moving our body is an excellent way to improve mood, calm our nervous system, and get lots of energy out. Engaging in heavy work or proprioceptive activities (ones that compress and/or contract our joints) will help us understand where our body is in space and ground us to the earth.
Easy forms of heavy work:
- Hanging from monkey bars
- Standing in a door frame and pushing our arms against the sides as though to widen the doorway
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Completing chores (washing the table, vacuuming, pushing toy bins around)
- Animal Walks
Get out your yoga mat (or use a carpet):
Cosmic Kids Yoga is a fun activity that incorporates yoga moves and story telling. Themes include Minecraft, Star Wars, Frozen, Pokemon, Moana. It’s so much fun, you’ll probably want to join in.
Sometimes just being in the fresh air in open space will improve our regulation. I have created a free outdoor sensory nature hunt (pictured above) that focuses on moving our body, social engagement, and cognitive task. You don’t need to be in the middle of the woods for this one, just step right outside your door. You can find the handout here.
During periods of change, whether it be big or small, maintaining a routine and structure is so important for our kids. Uncertainty is always scary (for us adults too). Kids are like hounds and can sniff it out, even if they don’t fully understand what is happening around them. It can cause anxiety and stress, even on the littlest of bodies. Providing them with a similar daily routine will help them thrive and give them stability when they need it the most.
- Before bedtime, talk about what their day ahead will look like.
- Make a daily schedule using pictures of them engaging in routines (lunch, play time, brushing teeth, outdoor play, etc) if they need more support.
- If school is not in session, continue to follow your typical morning routine. Get dressed, brush your teeth and have breakfast, just as you always would.
- Hang a calendar up in their room so they can see what day it is. Add special stickers for Birthdays, fun events, etc.
Katie Zelinski graduated from New York University with a masters in Occupational Therapy. She currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio and practices OT at Galvin Therapy Center. She has additional training in Ayres Sensory Integration, Reflex Integration, handwriting, and Integrated Listening.
Follow her on Instagram @the.well.balanced.OT