Life Education

Coping with COVID-19 anxiety: How you and your family can manage the crisis

Episode Summary

Covid-19 is one of the biggest events in our living memory – and many parents are extremely anxious about the pandemic: the impact on our health, loved ones, children’s education and finances… not to mention, how the saturation media coverage, is affecting all of our mental wellbeing, particularly our kids. Amid growing anxiety in Australia and overseas, Life Education has produced this special podcast. Host Tracey Challenor chats with leading parenting and wellbeing expert and author Dr Justin Coulson about how to help children navigate one of the biggest challenges of our time. He urges parents to take a deep breath, focus on the positives, keep hold of hope and find the joy in the simple everyday activities that we can enjoy at home with families.

Episode Transcription

Tracey Challenor:

Hello. I'm Tracey Challenor bringing you a special Life Education podcast on the coronavirus. Well, COVID-19 is one of the biggest stories in our living memory and many parents are understandably extremely anxious about the pandemic, the impact on our health, our kids' education, our finances, and even how the saturation media coverage is affecting all of our wellbeing, but particularly our kids.

Tracey Challenor:

With me is leading parenting and families’ expert and bestselling author, Dr. Justin Coulson, and today we're talking about how you can help yourself and your children cope during this really anxious and unpredictable time. Hi, Justin. Thanks for joining me.

Dr Justin Coulson:

It's a pleasure, Tracey. I hope I can be helpful.

Tracey Challenor:

Oh look, I know you've been incredibly busy doing so many interviews and your own podcast and webinars, so really grateful for your time. You've been providing some excellent support for families on your Happy Families Facebook page during this coronavirus. I think we can all feel the anxiety building around this now … and the fear. How do we stay calm and maintain a sense of hope and optimism for our kids' sake as well as our own?

Dr Justin Coulson:

One of the things that I've really been emphasising is the need to do just that, to breathe and take a step back. I guess, psychologically distance ourselves from everything that seems to be drawing us in. I know that that's easier said than done, especially when we consider the challenges around schooling and education for our children. The issues associated with the extraordinary job loss that is occurring in various sectors around the country and just the financial uncertainty and instability. Then, of course, there's the actual health crisis itself as well.

Dr Justin Coulson:

There's a lot going on that we're trying to comprehend. The reality is we've never really quite been here before, at least no one in our generation has. What we really need to do is literally learn how to step back and step away from the psychological impact of these things, the anxiety increasing aspects of what's going on.

Dr Justin Coulson:

There's a couple of ways that we can do this. The first is that we can create a sense of physical distance and I'm not necessarily talking about this whole social distancing, which I've got a problem with. Let's not call it social distancing, we need social closeness right now. We do need physical distance though, and I think that that's an important distinction. We need to be emotionally and socially close to people. But what we also want to do is, I guess, step outside of ourselves in some way. Psychologists have done really fascinating studies that show that when we talk about ourselves in the third person, it does sound very strange. "What would Justin do in this situation," sounds really weird rather than, "What would I do right now?" When we talk about things in the third person, we actually create a sense of mental, cognitive, psychological distance from the circumstances.

Dr Justin Coulson:

Tracey, you've probably had that thing happen where somebody comes to you and they say, "Oh, I'm in this terrible situation. I just don't know what to do." They're really emotional about it. They're really wound up in the moment of it all, but because you have the psychological distance, you seem to see it a lot more objectively, maybe even more clearly, and the answers seem a little more obvious to you than they do to the person going through the challenge.

Tracey Challenor:

Yeah, exactly.

Dr Justin Coulson:

That's what we're trying to do here for ourselves and even for our children. We want to be able to step back and say, okay, "This is affecting me, but what would I say if it was my best friend, Tracey?" Or, "What would I say if Dr. Justin Coulson was talking to me about this? What would I do if?" We want to create that psychological distance. It helps us to see things a little differently and in so doing it helps us to be so much more calm.

Tracey Challenor:

Yeah, that's great advice Justin. I noticed that the questions that a lot of parents have been asking you on your Facebook page and so on, "What do I say to my children about this? How do I explain the threat around something we can't even see and how do I reassure my kids that everything's going to be okay?"

Dr Justin Coulson:

In my Facebook page, I actually recorded myself having this conversation with my children. I thought it might be helpful and instructive for parents and so if you visit my Facebook page, Dr. Justin Coulson's Happy Families and go through the videos, you'll see me sitting there with three of my six daughters.

Dr Justin Coulson:

We had an unscripted, unedited live conversation where I said, you can ask me anything, and they came with their pen and their paper and their questions all ready to go. They asked hard questions, questions like, my six year old said, "What happens if one of my friends dies?" My 10 year old said, "What happens if you don't have any money, dad, and you can't work?" They were asking tough questions, but what I hope to do in that video is what I have to do right now in answering this question and that is to highlight that you don't need an expert to tell you how to talk to your kids.

Dr Justin Coulson:

What you want to do in the simplest terms is answer their questions to the extent that they're curious. You don't have to turn on the fire hose. When somebody wants a drink, you don't say, "Well, open up wide," and you turn on that hose and fire in their mouth as hard as you can. You pour them a glass of water and once they've had a few sips you say, "Can I give you a top up?" That's what we do with our children and we say, "Well, that's a great question. Let me give you a little bit of an answer. Would you like to know anymore?" That's the first thing.

Dr Justin Coulson:

The second thing is that we need to answer honestly and if we don't know then we say, "I don't know." For example, when my six year old said, "Are any of my friends going to die?" I said to her, "That would make us all so sad if something like that happened, wouldn't it?" And she said, "Oh, yes it would." My response to her at that point was, "I sure hope none of them do because being sick and dying from this sickness would be horrible." So, I can't promise her that nobody will die that she knows, none of her friends, but what I can promise her is that I'm there for her and I understand how sad it would make her. Our approach here is not to be the font of all wisdom and knowledge. It's simply to provide gentle, peaceful reassurance. Let our children know that we're hearing them and that there's hope.

Tracey Challenor:

Some of the images we've been seeing on TV news are really quite distressing. It is an all-consuming story. It's hard to switch off, but you'd obviously recommend limiting children's exposure to media reports at a time like this.

Dr Justin Coulson:

It is an all-encompassing story. There is almost nothing else to talk about and nowhere else to go. What's funny about this is that this is exactly what we need. We need to get away from it by turning off the news and getting caught up in the mundane things of life.

Dr Justin Coulson:

For example, I had a fun conversation with a radio team just this morning who were talking about how they had an argument over the weekend as they were practising their self-isolation. They were arguing about pick-up sticks and whether you should be playing on the carpet or whether you should be playing on a hard surface like a dining table because of the different way that the surfaces affect the way the game goes. It was very funny just to laugh about something so mundane and ordinary and just step away from the pressure and the drama and the stress that the non-stop conversations about coronavirus are causing.

Dr Justin Coulson:

Our children need us to be a little bit normal. They need to feel like we can have some humour and that we can actually talk about other things. In fact, my year 12 daughter said to me just today, "Can we please talk about anything except coronavirus? I just, I don't want to have any more conversations about it," and I think that's right to honor that request. If we as adults need to be across the latest developments or announcements as the country goes through various stages and sequences of lockdown and opening up and those kinds of things, then maybe checking on the news once or perhaps twice a day, but keep our children away from it. They don't need to know and let's find other ways that we can stimulate them and keep their minds on other things.

Tracey Challenor:

I think you're right. We do need to be able to find a way to have a laugh with our kids at home while all this is going on and just on a practical level, Justin, with schools closing and public events and gatherings are shutting down, we are all going to be spending a lot more time at home together with our families. What are some of the things that we can do to stay optimistic and maybe somehow even turn this isolation period into a positive experience instead of a negative one?

Dr Justin Coulson:

Well, such an important question. How do we stay optimistic? Well, I think there's a handful of things that we should do. Number one, parents, just relax the tech rules a little bit in your home. Don't be so hardcore about it because frankly, technology is going to become an important part of our children's lives as education is increasingly delivered via that medium.

Dr Justin Coulson:

In addition to that though, I think there's a handful of things that are important. Number one, lower your expectations. You're not a school teacher, and so don't try to be a school teacher, and even if you are a school teacher, you probably don't want to be a school teacher to your own children all day every day as well as being a parent. I would say lower expectations around education.

Dr Justin Coulson:

Depending on their age, I would be probably be arguing for up to an hour maximum of educational experience each day, and other than that, I'll be looking to have them doing other things. Now, obviously if they're in the senior years of high school, that advice would not apply. But certainly, for younger children, I'd say 14 and under, about an hour of schoolwork a day would be fine. They should do a bit of reading. They should do an hour of physical activity a day somehow.

Dr Justin Coulson:

We want to encourage them to enjoy their hobbies. I've got one of my kids starting a podcast. She's so excited about starting this podcast. We can find creative outlets for them where they use their strengths, where they use those things that light them up that will help them to be optimistic, but I think the most important thing that we can do to help them to be optimistic other than being an example of optimism ourselves, is to help them to find a way that they can contribute to others that they can serve, that they can give, that they can make a difference.

Dr Justin Coulson:

Perhaps there's some elderly people around the corner or down the street or even next door who could do with some help with the lawns or with some grocery shopping. Maybe there's somebody in your local community who could do with a hand one way or another. As the children reach out and make a difference in the lives of other people, they feel hopeful, they feel empowered, they feel competent and capable. They feel like they're making a difference and therefore they feel optimistic about their futures. It might require a bit of creativity, but if you're part of any kind of community, I'm sure that there will be opportunities for you to do this and that is what I would recommend more than perhaps anything at all.

Tracey Challenor:

Yeah, it is going to be tricky for people stuck at home with really young children though, isn't it? A friend of mine put a post up the other day and she said something like, "Well, we've played the balloon game, we've done paper mache and it's only 7:00 A.M. Anyone got any suggestions?" I mean, what do we do? How do we keep our sanity when we're at home with kids, young kids and teenagers who are really struggling to get their heads around the fact that they can't get out and see their mates and have their usual social activities? It's going to curb a lot of freedom.

Dr Justin Coulson:

It is tricky and I think that in those instances what we really want to be doing is talking with friends and others, using social media for all that it's good for. There are so many millions of great ideas doing the rounds on social media at the moment. I've had so many of them come across my various feeds. We just have to, I think, be really intentional, be quite planful and again, lower expectations, not just about children but also of what we're going to get done.

Dr Justin Coulson:

I know that people are talking about being creative. There's been sell-outs at Bunnings on all of the things that we might do. All of those projects that need to be done in the yard or people planting vegetable gardens and putting up chook runs and those kinds of things. Bringing the children into those kinds of environments is tremendous fun.

Dr Justin Coulson:

But we can get them involved in the kitchen. I know it a much longer time. I know it makes a much bigger mess, but all this sort of stuff as we slow down and involve our children in our lives, in our world, it seems to bring them closer to us and it seems to also improve their behavior. The one thing I would watch out for is cabin fever associated with too much screen time. I have seen it in my own children during this unsettling period where if we let them spend too much time in front of screens, they do become, well, challenging, I think it was probably the best word.

Tracey Challenor:

You can say stroppy if you like. You're not allowed to say that, but I can say that.

Dr Justin Coulson:

All that and a whole lot more. There's the sass and there's the strop and all sorts of things. It's tough.

Tracey Challenor:

But it's funny you mentioned Bunnings, Justin. I planted a herb garden on the weekend and I'm finding that incredibly therapeutic. I go out in the evening, I look at my herbs and I feel a lot calmer about things, so whatever it takes at this point, isn't it? Whatever calms you, soothes you. It's finding that mindful simple activity at a time like this.

Dr Justin Coulson:

Yeah, outside is fuel for the soul. You know, nature is calming and relaxing and reassuring and to the extent that it's possible whenever we're not being confined to our homes, and even if we are, finding ways to experience nature, finding ways to be in our own safe space, but certainly in the real world rather than inside those four walls of our home, that will do wonders for our wellbeing.

Dr Justin Coulson:

In fact, the most important things that we can do for our wellbeing I'd sum up in just a couple of words. First of all, we've got to spend time with others however we can. The need to connect with others frequently cannot be understated. Secondly, we need to be active and our children do too. It's a normal and healthy part of what it is to be human and our wellbeing drops when we're not being active, particularly if we're not outdoors.

Dr Justin Coulson:

The third thing that we need to do, and I think you've just tapped into it as well is just slow down a little bit. Go and lay on the grass or on the trampoline with your child and stare at the clouds because you can, even though you've got other things to do and so many other priorities, sometimes it's good to just slow down and do that.

Dr Justin Coulson:

The fourth thing that I would recommend is that we find a way that there can be a little bit of learning every day and the fifth thing, as I've already mentioned, is let's find a way that our children can make a difference to others, even little kids.

Tracey Challenor:

Absolutely. You mentioned that we are social creatures. I suppose one thing that that is cruel about this disease, one of the many things, is that it is separating families to a certain degree. We've been told it's not a good idea to visit the grandparents for the time being in case we bring them in contact with coronavirus. That means that kids might not see their grandparents for a lengthy period of time and that can create almost a sense of grief, particularly for older people, but also for kids who really want to see nanny and pop. Any suggestions there, Justin, about how we can bridge that gap for the time being?

Dr Justin Coulson:

Yeah. As a family, we have just in the last little while, had that very experience with grandparents where we've said, "This is it. We'll look forward to seeing you when this is all over, but for your safety and for ours, we all need to isolate now," and that's been a decision that was very, very hard and it was very tearful. The children were so sad about it and obviously the grandparents were as well. I think that what we need to do though is remind our children and even the grandparents, that these decisions are being made out of love and concern and a desperate desire to support one another and do well by one another. That seems to me to be the most important thing. This disease is not about survival of the fittest. It's about protection of the weakest.

Dr Justin Coulson:

Beyond that though, it's probably worth remembering that we do have FaceTime, we do have Skype, we do have a variety of technological wonders at our fingertips that can help us to have some connection, even if it's not a skin-to-skin or face-to-face. In fact, some research suggests that, once again, the frequency of contact, regardless of the medium, matters more than whether we're actually in one another's space or not.

Dr Justin Coulson:

Just being able to talk to each other. I mean, for over 100 years we've used the telephone as a wonderful opportunity to feel close to loved ones even though they're not nearby and being able to talk on the phone, it feels incredible. Not quite as good, I guess, as being able to be in one another's arms, but it's still a pretty darn good substitute and I think we need to just remember that we've got tech and we should use it so that we can keep those connections strong.

Tracey Challenor:

Yeah. Know that it's not forever and then down the track we'll be all having that group hug when we need it.

Dr Justin Coulson:

Yeah, I think you're right. That's what we need to look forward to. That's what we need to have hope for.

Tracey Challenor:

On a lighter note, Justin, you and your wife have six girls, five still living at home. How are you coping with the supplies? Particularly, dare I say it, toilet paper.

Dr Justin Coulson:

Well, let's just say that we've sat down with the children. I'm a bit embarrassed to say this, but we sat down with the kids and we showed them how to use a smaller number of squares when they use the bathroom so that we can just be sensible. You know what? We've also explained to them that Australia, according to the reports, produces three times the food and goods and supplies than what our population actually requires. We've let our children know that we have every confidence that the shelves will remain stocked and that while there have been some scary moments, that there is going to be enough to go around.

Dr Justin Coulson:

In addition, for many years now, probably for about the last eight to 10 years, we've practiced, I guess, a fairly comprehensive food storage supply program. My wife has always, when things are on special, she's just bought an extra two or four or six. So, over the years our food storage supply grown enough that we feel comfortable and confident that as a family we're in a wonderfully privileged position because of her wisdom, we'll be able to get through a couple of months if worse comes to worst and hopefully that won't be necessary, but with a bit of wisdom on my wife's part, I would never have thought of doing it, but she's always kept the pantry well stocked and we'll be okay.

Tracey Challenor:

Plenty of food in the Coulson bunker.

Dr Justin Coulson:

It won't be very tasty food. I mean it's all pretty basic stuff. But and again, I don't say that to gloat because I'm aware that there'll be people who are listening who are thinking, "Well, gee, I've barely got enough to get through the next week and I'm very nervous." I acknowledge how tricky this is. I think that what it has been for our family is a tremendous wake-up call to being really prudent in the way we live. I think it will change the way our entire society lives going forward.

Tracey Challenor:

It will certainly make us appreciate the little things a lot more, I think, won't it?

Dr Justin Coulson:

Yeah. Yeah. We're already feeling like we're appreciating those things. It doesn't take too long.

Tracey Challenor:

No, exactly. Well, Justin, given the Life Education Program is all about empowering children's physical, social and emotional health and wellbeing. We just wanted to provide some wise and reassuring information for parents on how to deal with the coronavirus. So, I really do appreciate your expert advice and just to recap, you've been talking today about the four H's, being heard, sense of humor, helping others when you can, and just holding onto that sense of hope, which is just so important.

Dr Justin Coulson:

That's it. They're the big four things that I think children need the most.

Tracey Challenor:

What's in store for you in the weeks ahead? Webinars, podcasts, providing information to support people during this time?

Dr Justin Coulson:

All of those things. We've talked within my small team about what we can do right now. It's such a trying time for everybody and so we've determined that we're going to move forward with a three-pronged framework that's going to guide the decisions that we make. The first is we really want to provide calm assurance for families. If you want that calm assurance, I guess, following me on social media or subscribing to my newsletter will probably be the best place to go.

Dr Justin Coulson:

But in addition to calm assurance, we really want to focus as much as we can on serving the families of Australia and indeed the world and being as generous as we can. We know that people are going to be going through some very tough times and because of the wonderful access that we have to resources because of the internet, we want to give as much help as generously and with this as much of a service focus as we can over the next little while. Our focus is very much on giving as much good information as generously as we can to as many people as possible.

Tracey Challenor:

Well, you're doing an amazing job and as I said, I really appreciate you sharing some great advice with us today.

Dr Justin Coulson:

Tracey, it's been a pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity and I wish you well and everyone who's listening, I hope that the challenges of the coronavirus don't impact you too much.

Tracy Challenor:

Let’s hope so

Tracey Challenor:

My guest today was Dr. Justin Coulson, author and parenting and wellbeing expert. You can also listen to Justin's other podcast for Life Education on resilience, which has some really great tools on how to raise a resilient child. I'm Tracy Challenor and you've been listening to this special podcast on the coronavirus, part of our Life Education podcast series. Thanks for joining us.