Dr. Lauren Stutman, Psy.D, on How to Ease our Kids’ Anxieties: Pt. 2

Nov. 3, 2020Updated Oct. 31, 2022
Last week, we spoke with founder and clinical director of CARE-LA, Dr. Lauren Stutman, Psy.D, to find out about strategies we can implement from home to support our kids as they weather challenges. In this second installment, she talks about reducing distractibility, practicing “good enough socialization,” and how to handle stress — both our kids’ and our own.

3 Things You Can Try Right Now:

  • If your child struggles to focus doing schoolwork, help them by having them move their body, reduce distractions, and take regular eye and body breaks.
  • Practice “good enough socialization” with a sibling, pet, or even bug-hunting in the yard — interacting with any living creature is a boon.
  • Consider ways to better manage your own stress! Check out this TED talk and try this meditation video with your kids.

Can you give us a few strategies to help kids stay calm, focused, and engaged while doing schoolwork at home?

To help kids focus, we can try certain things that enlist their bodies:

  • First, create an environment that’s comfortable. Invest in a comfortable chair and make sure the screen is at eye level and that your child’s feet touch the floor, if possible.

  • Research indicates that when a subgroup of kids with ADHD have something to do with their body, they process information better — so consider trying a standing desk (I know that some of these are big asks), using a yoga ball instead of a chair, or even putting a stationary bike in front of the computer.

  • Add sensory elements — for example, squishies, silly putty, or Speks magnets.

  • Remind your child to look away from the screen. The American Optometric Association recommends the 20-20-20 rule: take a 20-second break every 20 minutes by looking at something 20 feet away. When you’re on the computer, you’re not blinking as much, which can lead to eye strain, distractibility, and irritability.

  • Use visual timers to remind your child to get up and stretch. I’ve talked to teachers at a number of schools now, and it’s really helpful.

  • During breaks, encourage your child to go on a walk with you, get outside, or do some sort of yoga video (check out Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube!). It’s so important to get their bodies moving and get fresh air.

Finally, remember that screen time is screen time — in addition to contributing to screen overload, screen time can have negative impacts on behaviors. We know from the world of psychology that rewards work better for behaviors than punishment — so try to limit screen time and instead, use it as a reward.

What about the S-word — socialization? For many of our kids, especially those who are medically fragile, the fallout from the social isolation of only seeing peers on a screen is pretty huge.

The truth of the matter is that socialization feeds the brain — and unfortunately, socialization with peers is all about calculated risks right now. We’re social animals — socialization is necessary for our survival — and not having quality social time definitely impacts our mental health.

That said, while it’s important to practice peer interactions, any face-to-face interactions — with parents, siblings, caretakers, even animals — are going to feed that social part of the brain. It’s important to remember that socialization is not so black and white: i.e., either they’re with their friends or they’re done for. There’s a term in psychology called the “good enough parent” (which comes from British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott), so we could call this the “good enough socialization.” We need to get some of that social activity going in our kids’ brains.

Obviously, it would be ideal to try to get the best peer interaction with a family that has the same values as you, or having social distance playdates if kids are in a place where they can regulate and not jump on top of the other kid. But this doesn’t work for everybody. You can try a social-distance playdate where kids do an art project, or have a movie night with blankets positioned six feet apart. If you host a Zoom playdate with a peer, maybe the kids can make something or bake a cake simultaneously — this also pairs a physical activity with social time.

Some other options:

If your child isn’t able to socially distance, you might consider getting them a pet if they don’t have one. I realize that this is a (very!) tall order, but socializing with any animal can have therapeutic value. Get your child outside hunting for bugs: really, anything that involves another living being helps.

Quality time together is more important than quantity. We’re with our kids so much, and many of us are pushed to the brim, so it’s important to remember that you don’t have to do a two-hour art project to spend QT together. Try singing a song while they brush their teeth, for instance, to bring fun into something we still have to do every day.

Here are a few other things you could try to shake up your routine — I call this my bonding activities menu:

  • Create a daily journal — this can be a drawing, a few sentences, or stickers that show how your child is feeling

  • Watch the sunrise or sunset

  • Go stargazing

  • Cook a favorite meal (or dessert!)

  • Start a blog (or phlog!)

  • Explore someplace new — whether it’s around the corner or a country on National Geographic Kids

  • Research an unfamiliar topic online (can you keep a pet lizard?)

  • Rearrange your furniture

  • Write a poem together

  • Play cards (Uno is a favorite around here!)

  • Have a picnic in your backyard

And then there’s the other S-word: stress. Any advice?

Hold this whole thing lighter than you think you need to hold it because a stressed-out parent is going to make for a less effective parent. It’s important that we realize it’s not whether you’re going to mess your kids up, but how! I’m going to mess my kid up and if they have the resources, they’ll go to therapy! My favorite supervisor used to say, “I have two savings funds: one for college and one for therapy.” If we accept that we will mess them up in some way or another we’ll breathe a little easier, and we’ll have more energy to be a better and more present parent. Sometimes we’re going to find ourselves in a bad place, and that’s okay — just say to yourself, “Right now it’s like this.”

**I just recorded a meditation for kids on how to make a safe space inside their minds that they can visit whenever they need it. Watch it with them, maybe even do it with them!

And then there’s a TED talk every parent should watch called How to Make Stress Your Friend. In it, psychologist Kelly McGonigal talks about a study that found that people who believe stress is harmful (and most of us do, because that’s what science has told us) have a higher incidence of morbidity when they encounter a major life stressor. We should think about how to use this placebo effect — if we know that stress can make us stronger, this knowledge will impact how we respond to the stressor.

The stories we tell ourselves play a huge role in our physical bodies, the energy we bring into a room, and really everything we do. So pay attention to the stories you’re telling yourself — about yourself, about this experience, about your children, and about the importance of their education. Yes, their education is important, but it’s not as important as their mental health and their relationship with you. If you notice you’re telling yourself a negative story, I have a little saying: “Don’t be upset that you thought it, be proud that you caught it.” This way you won’t go down a spiral of other critical self-talk. We need to be aware of our patterns in order to change them, and noticing your inner critic is the first step to overcoming it and transmuting it into the loving voice we all deserve to hear during this unprecedented time.

Want to learn more from Dr. Stutman? Check out CARE-LA’s blog. And please let us know how you and your child are doing — we'd love to hear from you!


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