By Abigail Romirowsky, PhD. Psychologist and Ross Center Child and Adolescent Program Director
As a psychologist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I tend to organize my own experiences and those I’m treating in terms of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that comprise the “CBT Triangle”. So, two weeks ago I was resolved to create a positive routine for “Kiddo” (age 5) and our family during COVID-19. My emotions ranged from nervous to motivated. I thought about the importance of my choices in the short-term (“We need a school-like schedule to minimize Kiddo’s anxiety now and ease his transition after”). And so my behavior leaned toward over-control as I furiously thumb-typed plans to organize our space and time into my iPhone notes app. I rationalized my over-control as being in service of Kiddo’s well being, knowing that my own behavior and emotional presentation would undoubtedly impact his. For reference, read: How to talk to kids about coronavirus.
By the end of Week 1, I congratulated myself on a job well done. Kiddo’s emotions and behavior were stable and manageable. He genuinely seemed happy when working on the activities I set up (“I loved our science project!”), he was excited to help set up our makeshift classroom area (“Let’s add a building station!”), and he was generally calm when transitioning to another adult as I prepared to do telehealth with my clients (“See you later mom!”).
By about 10 am on Monday of Week 2, my bubble had burst. He was suspicious, asking constant questions for which I truly didn’t have clear answers (“How many days are we doing mommy school? Is it 100 days?”), he was more tired and began resisting venturing out of the house (“I don’t want to do a walk today mom, I’m tooooooo tiiiiiiiiiired.”), and he was easily frustrated (“I thought this crayon was going to be RED but it looks piiiiiiiink! I haaaaaaate piiiiiiiink!!!!!) and just plain sad at times. Understandably my own anxious thoughts revved up (“I’m not doing it well enough”, “We must not be doing enough kid friendly yoga”).
And so my initial impulse was to run an even tighter ship as I furiously purchased small prizes online to reinforce Kiddo doing a “good job” for each section of the day. By Wednesday morning, I was put squarely in my place again by Kiddo himself who knew that he needed the ridiculousness of this situation to be acknowledged head-on. While he cried and I held him, I realized that I had been misapplying my own training. It’s not that my approach to maintain structure and set appropriate limits were misguided, but rather I had completely forgotten to attend to an entire third of the CBT Triangle.
Unexpected shifts in everyday life result in heightened emotions, no matter how old you are. Maintaining some sort of routine is certainly a healthy approach, but during this time of completely rational uncertainty, the most potent parenting tool at my disposal is our relationship and my ability to validate and reflect Kiddo’s emotions back to him. Ironically, it took my parent self nearly two weeks longer than my therapist self to remember this. Focusing on validating Kiddo’s emotions might help me reframe my own thoughts toward better coping (“no one except me is evaluating my parenting performance”), experience more calm, and be able to modulate my own behavior to be more flexible and responsive to Kiddo’s needs.
It is now Monday at 10 am at the start of Week 3. Kiddo sits nearby as I type this, watching his eighteenth YouTube video about space just this morning. His seventeenth video was earned after he changed out of his pajamas. When he said “please” and “thank you” before both videos, I felt a wave of pride (rather than guilt over screen time), which led me to smile at him, tousle his hair, and snuggle with him while we learned about dwarf planets (again). And those prizes I hoarded? I’ll use those instead as tokens of his emotional labor (and mine).
If your child (or you!) are struggling with uncontrolled anxiety, we can help. We have child and adult therapists available to provide tele-therapy, offering counseling, tools, and guidance to get you through this challenging time.