Column: Explaining What “Normal” Looks Like

Column: Explaining What “Normal” Looks Like

This column originally appeared MetroWest Daily News on August 9, 2020

By Dr. Lauren Barry/Guest Columnist
Director of Clinical Initiatives and Data Analytics

Explaining what “normal” looks like to children is difficult when there are no real answers.

It’s been a rough couple of months living through a pandemic, with little indication regarding when life will ever go back to “normal.” Explaining what “normal” looks like to children is difficult when there are no real answers. Anxiety in children is fueled by fear of the unknown which causes worry, stress and irritability.

Even as the state continues to reopen and loosen restrictions, there are still so many questions about what’s next that we don’t have the answers to.

Unfortunately, anxious children live in the world of “what-ifs.” What if school is different? What if I must wear a mask? What if I forget my mask? What if I won’t know anyone? What if I can’t go to Girl Scouts, or basketball or to summer camp? What if my parents get sick? What if I don’t want to go outside, to the beach or swimming? What will I do this summer if we can’t go anywhere?

As parents, what can you do?

Do Your Best to Answer Questions

Answer the “what if” questions as best you can, using simple language and being honest about what you don’t know. Anxiety is typically about anticipating that something bad will happen. Children with anxiety need reassurance more than most other children. They are looking for an answer to quell the fear that keeps them up at night. If you don’t know the answer, it is OK to say that you don’t know, but that you and the important people in the child’s life are doing everything you can to make sure that they are safe wherever they are.

Prepare Ahead of Time

Children with anxiety like to be prepared. They want to anticipate every scenario. It may feel frustrating to you that they want to know for the sixth time if the school is safe, if desks are spaced apart, if teachers will wear masks, etc. Taking the time to have these conversations will go a long way toward reducing the fears that could potentially result in school refusal, tantrums, anxiety attacks or physical symptoms later.

Brainstorm Answers to “What if” Questions

Give them concrete examples of how they can respond to their “what if’s” on their own. For example, “what could you do if you have to wear a mask and you forget it at home?” Have them brainstorm ahead of time about what they would do in this situation; keep an extra mask in their backpack, tell their teacher, go to the nurse, etc. This is a way to turn a “worry thought” into a “positive thought” by creating a plan of action.

Avoid Avoidance

Children who are anxious want to avoid situations that are scary or triggering for them. Allowing them to avoid these situations reinforces that the way to deal with their anxiety is to hide from it. You can help soothe their fears by taking small steps toward the feared situation, instead of running from it.

Build a Coping Kit

Help your child build a “coping kit” of tools that will work for them when they feel anxious. Some children like having a stress ball or fidget toy handy. Others like to practice deep breathing and yoga or put on headphones and listen to distracting music under a weighted blanket. Still others prefer to work with their hands – to draw, make a bracelet, knit, or build something. You and your child know best the tools that will help to calm them, and it is important that your child have access to those tools before their anxiety takes over.


After your child has tried different coping tools, ask them what worked, and why, or alternatively, what didn’t work, and why not? Ongoing practice and reinforcement of these tools will allow them to access these coping skills when needed. Sometimes a skill works for a specific fear, but not for something else, so adjusting and problem solving is the best way to create lasting change. As with any skill, managing anxiety takes practice.

Finally, do your best to manage your own anxiety around your children. You may be dealing with your own job changes, financial issues, childcare concerns, etc., but ideally it is best to keep those concerns among the adults.

Mobile apps can also be a way to help quell anxiety, especially for preteens and teens who are rarely without their phones.

For young children: Breathe, Think Do, by Sesame Street; Stop Breathe and Think; Breathing Bubbles; Positive Penguins.

For older youth: Calm; Dreamy Kid; Smiling Mind; Take a Chill.

If you need immediate help – If you or your child need to see a counselor, contact the Behavioral Health Partners of MetroWest at 844-528-6800. Telehealth services can be set up until in-person services resume.

Lauren Barry, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist who has provided treatment to children and adolescents at Wayside for over 20 years.


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