Feeling shut down? How to help your family cope with numbness and isolation during COVID

Do you notice that your son or daughter is feeling more frustrated, down and hopeless as the shelter-in-place directive and online schooling continues? I’m hearing from so many kids and parents that things seem to be getting worse as this confinement continues. With thousands of schools switching their grading systems to Pass/Fail, many kids are doing the minimal amount of homework to get by if not avoiding it altogether. Some may not be showering daily, brushing their teeth or putting on clean clothes. Others have reverted to younger and less mature coping skills, erupting and arguing more while cooperating less than they typically do. What can you do to combat their numbness, hopelessness or regressive behaviors?

The first step is acknowledging their very real losses and emotional pain. Nothing is familiar any more. They’ve had to let go of daily casual peer contact at school, planned social get-togethers, familiarity of learning environments and teacher interactions–the list goes on and on. Without having things to look forward to, they may get enraged or turn inward and shut down or both. This is especially true for kids who’ve had special events like graduation, sports seasons, dance recitals, drama performances and more snatched away from them without warning. You may well be experiencing pushback, non-cooperation and aggression in your family that you haven’t that you thought you’d moved beyond or is completely new.

Let’s review common struggles for families and look at some useful tools for dealing with them more effectively:

  1. When kids are stressed, anxious and vulnerable, they will act out their concerns with you. A ten year-old boy shared his fear and confusion about living with COVID: “We don’t know when and if this is ever going to stop and if we’ll have our lives the way we want it. . .No matter how much you try not to think about it, you’re still going to focus on it. Like school and stuff but even going on a walk to refresh your brain, you have to wear a mask.”  He’s been arguing vociferously with his parents or running to his room, slamming the door and angrily crying more days than not. He doesn’t know how to wrap his brain around what’s going on. Sound familiar?

When kids act out towards their parents, they are showing us with their words and behavior that their emotions have overwhelmed their internal resources to cope. While it’s not pleasant, it is actually a positive thing in one important way. It shows you that they feel both connected and safe enough with you to share feelings that they can neither understand nor manage on their own. Whatever coping mechanisms you’ve helped them develop probably have weakened in the past month or two. Many kids with ADHD (and those without it too) are taking a few big steps backwards based on intense frustration, anxiety and disappointment. This kind of regression is normal during stressful situations. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t tolerate disrespectful, hurtful or inappropriate actions because of their struggles.

Tip: Expect their pushback, notice when it occurs and plan for how to deal with it in advance. Avoid crises by planning and predicting issues that seem to trigger distress. Talk to your son or daughter, share your observations about their struggle and put a plan in place to calm things down when they occur. Create a timed break, a short regrouping to discuss how to move forward and then take that action: Use ‘Stop, Think, Act.’ 

2. Support their need for social connection by figuring out ways to contact and engage peers remotely and/or safely in person. Kids have to be able to experience themselves in relation to their friends to nurture their identity and make sense of the world. All of those casual “Hellos” and “How are you doing?” that occur while passing in school hallways, at lunch tables and on the playground contribute to how they see themselves and who they want to become. We have to assist them to reach out and stay in touch which often means you’ll be responsible for helping or supporting them to facilitate these activities.

Tip: Try some of these ideas: Zoom sessions for Lego, drawing or games (Monopoly, Clue, Taboo, etc); chalk drawing outside (mark off sections that are 6 feet apart, put on their masks and watch them); tossing a frisbee or baseball with gloves and masks; share a baking project on FaceTime; bike riding with a friend who also has a mask on; group Zoom dinners, playing music or watching a show via screen share; creating videos with individual characters that are assembled by one or two kids. Anything that’s outside the box but still follows safety guidelines. 

3. Families are tired of being together and everybody’s nerves are fraying. Neither you nor your child or teen can sometimes get adequate or enough space from each other. A thirteen year-old girl told me “Frankly, I’m sick and tired of them [her parents]. It’s been repetitive for weeks. I’d go anywhere as long as it’s not with them.”  Your kids love you and you them but 24/7 is A LOT OF FAMILY TIME. Everyone needs SOME time apart that isn’t instigated by arguments, tears or blame.

Tip: Plan for quiet, alone time each day. Set a specific, timed period in your day for down time. This may or may not include screen time–that’s up to you. It’s best to talk together as family beforehand and list options for each person that make the most sense for them. You can all choose the same option daily or have rotating activities. Do whatever works best.


4. Things feel incredibly monotonous right now. When kids with ADHD and their Now/Not now brains look into an unknown future where things have already been canceled for this school year and summer activities are following suit, it’s very discouraging. Life can seem hopeless and they feel powerless and discouraged. You may well feel like this too.

Tip; Think one to two weeks at a time. We really don’t know what will happen next month so let’s try not to focus on the unforeseeable future. Instead, create some simple things to look forward to now. Make specific plans for special, fun things like take-out from a favorite restaurant, home-made sundaes on a Thursday night, breakfast for dinner. Talk with your kids about some of their ideas to mix it up and then include their suggestions. 

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Hang in there. We are all struggling–kids and adults alike–to embrace our resilience and integrate the strangeness of our lives every day. As one of my mentors used to say, when you get to the end of your rope, make a knot and hold on. I’m certainly gripping the knot on my rope too. .