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Families figuring out coping techniques during social distancing

An adolescent psychiatrist explains what we can do to support one another while we're hunkering down at home.

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Hunkering down at home – the idea of more family time seems pretty great. But in reality, all of this togetherness – while staying apart from everyone else – is going to be hard.

We turned to Dr. Mary Beth Lardizabal, Allina Health’s Medical Director for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to find out what we can do to support one another.

Dr. Lardizabal agrees, this is a whole new world. "It's the great unknown. It's something that's never happened before," she said.

With COVID-19 containment efforts keeping kids at home and out of school, we're all learning new lessons and routines starting with safety.

"They need to understand why they're washing their hands and how the immediate family can be affected and how their friends can be affected about how their neighbors might be affected," said Dr. Lardizabal. 

It's important to talk to children on a developmental level and keep calm. "If they see us panic, guess what, anxiety is contagious. So we need to show them that we have some confidence that things will get better," said Dr. Lardizabal.

Structure can help ease some of that anxiety.

"It's not a snow day. We really have to help them keep a routine and expectations about their behavior," shared Dr. Lardizabal.

The doctor also mentioned that parents shouldn't be surprised to see some acting out.

"I think also, kids can start to get more frustrated. They might become more irritable. They might start having conflicts with their siblings. All signs of stress," said Dr. Lardizabal.

So mom and dad, your lesson now is to listen.

"I think it's really important for kids to feel like they can talk about their fear. It's okay if they're mad, sad or scared," Lardizabal said.

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We also need to set a good example. "We need to make sure that we're eating well. Having healthy food, sleeping more than we think we do; we have to limit our screen time," said Dr. Lardizabal. "It's not going to help if your child sees you binge watching 6 hours of Netflix or being tuned to the news 24/7," she continued.

What should you do to cope? The doctor says it's a good time to get back to basics.

"This is actually an opportunity for our whole families to unplug and do the things we used to do, things that you might do in the summer at the cabin," Lardizabal suggested.

Just because you're supposed to practice social distancing doesn't mean you have to be cooped up inside.

"There is the need for play, to discharge energy, to exercise and have some fun. We don't want to have kids be overwhelmed and start to think only about the worst case scenario," said Dr. Lardizabal.

Another coping technique: deep breathing.

Dr. Lardizabal says slowing your breathing improves your nervous system. Take a simple in breath for four counts and an out breath for seven.

Allina Health also teaches something called belly breathing, where you lay down on the floor, put your hand on your belly and watch your hand go up and down. Dr. Lardizabal says it's helpful to do around bedtime if children have trouble sleeping.

Allina Health offers more resources: Change to Chill website is designed for teen and pre-teens with resources to help them deal with stress. Many features may be useful in this new environment.

For younger kids, Allina has Health Powered Kids, with lots of activities to keep kids active and snack and diet resources.

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