During these turbulent times, the stress on families is palpable. Parents and children alike are feeling understandably anxious about their futures.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health concerns in the United States. And because long-term exposure to stressful events contributes to the risk of developing an anxiety disorder, it’s important to avoid letting anxiety persist unchecked, especially in children.
Thankfully, families can proactively leverage science-backed ways to ease anxiousness and restore a sense of connection and joyfulness at home. When family members spend time together, actively engaged in the anxiety-relieving activities mentioned below, they also strengthen their bonds, create opportunities for open dialogue, increase feelings of joy and generate a sense of consistency, all much-needed benefits during this time of heightened stress and uncertainty.
Here are four ways to get started.
Start a daily gratitude practice
Studies abound on the stress-busting, mood-boosting, and, even, sleep-improving benefits of practicing gratitude. Research shows that people who participate in activities that foster a sense of gratitude experience an immediate increase in feelings of happiness and decrease in negative emotions; however, without consistency, the positive effects dissipate over time.
Families can cultivate a consistent attitude of gratitude by incorporating giving thanks into shared daily routines. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, like family members verbally expressing something they’re grateful for during family meals or using some form of communal gratitude jar, whiteboard or journal.
In our family, we recently established a shared gratitude chalkboard wall, where we each write one thing we’re grateful for daily. It’s a feel-good activity that not only reminds us of all the positives in our lives, but, as a parent, I find it provides insight into my son’s focus and values, enabling me to relate to him in a more meaningful manner.
Practicing gratitude also offers a means for parents to strengthen their bonds with each other. A 2010 study of couples in committed relationships found that gratitude for everyday gestures increased their relationship connection and satisfaction.
As I mentioned many years ago in a piece I did specifically on everyday gratitude practices, my husband and I keep our own gratitude white board in our master bathroom. Nightly, we each write things we’re grateful for relative to one another.
Break out the crayons and art supplies
There’s a reason child psychologists encourage children to express their feelings through drawings, teachers use coloring activities to conquer pre-test jitters and some dentists use coloring before appointments to ease dental anxiety. The anxiety-busting benefits of artistic expression are undeniable.
You’ve likely witnessed a child’s care-free concentration when coloring, and the pride they exude when showing off their completed works of art. Maybe you remember that relaxed, confidence-building feeling from your own childhood.
But coloring isn’t just for kids!
Over the past decade, emerging research supports art-making’s therapeutic value for people of all ages, showing that it can significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and has the potential to alleviate anxiousness, facilitate focus, and increase mindfulness.
Although much of the latest research focuses on coloring, therapeutic benefits have been shown with many types of art making, so don’t limit yourself to crayons or colored pencils. Experiment with other mediums—and don’t stress over your artistic ability! It’s about the creative expression, not expertise. Whether you’ve got skills like Rembrandt or can barely draw a stick figure, pick up your preferred art tool and start creating alongside your kids.
Foster fantasy play
Playing pretend is a natural childhood tendency that helps children unwind and release stress. That’s why it’s important to create a home environment that fosters and supports playtime.
“Dramatic play can help children relieve anxiety by allowing them to act-out real-world events in a way that gives them a sense of control, for instance, pretending to take a trip to the hospital, or acting out a trip to the store where everyone wears masks,” says Danielle Sutton, a Tampa, Florida-based, licensed child and family psychologist,
Although younger children may seem more sheltered from the direct impact of current events, they still face anxiety-inducing changes to how they experience the world outside their homes. That includes wearing masks and social distancing, as well as disruptions in their routines and the inability to see friends and family members.
“While symbolic play might just look like simple pretend activity, it is the basis for helping children understand the events of the world around them,” adds Sutton.
Play shouldn’t be reserved for the youngest members of the family. Teens can and should engage in games that spark imagination, like Pictionary or Charades. And playtime shouldn’t always exclude parents, Sutton says. In addition to having family game nights, get down on the floor with your younger kids during playtime and follow their lead.
“While children can and do benefit from engaging in imaginative play on their own,” says Sutton, “play interaction with family members can really deepen the emotional content of the play and support a child’s ability to explore a wide range of feelings.”
Make family fitness a priority
Designating time for family fitness is an effective way to strengthen your family bond while relieving stress and anxiety. And, with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that obesity rates have tripled for children and quadrupled for adolescents over the last 30 years, it’s important for families to increase opportunities for everyone to get moving.
There are myriad studies on the mental health benefits of regular exercise, but when it comes to specifically dealing with anxiousness, the most effective forms of exercise focus on the mind-body connection. Think yoga, tai chi and qigong.
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However, research also shows significant benefits for anxiety and depression with just 15-30 minutes of low-to-moderate aerobic activity. This could be as simple as taking a walk all together or as involved as doing a fun, family workout.
Family fitness doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does need to be consistent. Whether it’s yoga, a walk or a workout, make a commitment and hold all family members accountable to participating several times per week.
With all the uncertainty in the world right now, one thing is certain, families possess profound potential to provide much-needed solace and support.
Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”