Happy 2021 to Princeton parents and their children. We will probably soon see changes in confinement to our homes but in the meantime, we are still mostly stuck inside.
So, when cabin fever–or “online learning fatigue” as it is currently being termed–grips your kids during these post-holiday winter days, here are some evidence-based distractions that can make them happier right now!
I am a big fan of distraction. It is a tool that is always at our disposal when we are faced with strong negative emotions. It can be a solution to pandemic-related mood swings in children. Giving them activities that redirect their mind will reset their attention to something else. Distraction gives their strong emotions time to dissipate. It buys them time to process those emotions when they are calmer and more rational.
To inspire you, I have made a list of the top 5 (evidence-based) distractions that can help your child be happier right now! I put together my list using my experience with my clients and studies about what helps people cope in difficult circumstances. Give these suggestions a try. They require hardly any special equipment or preparation (maybe snow boots or iTunes) and they might just provide the boost your children need.
1. Listen to Upbeat Music. According to a study at the University of Missouri, listening to upbeat music can actually improve your mood. The researchers stress that it is important to immerse yourself in the experience and not get distracted by monitoring your mood (“Am I feeling better yet”??). Just turn up some sick jams and let yourself get into them.
My own 13-year-old daughter’s life was transformed when her vinyl-collecting dad took her on a trip to Princeton Record Exchange. She is now a devotee of 80’s bands like The Clash and The English Beat. We bought her a turntable and between online classes she cranks up the New Wave tunes for a break.
2. Get out into the natural world, even if only to run an errand or take a walk in the park. It will raise a low mood; a study on the brain and immersion in nature shows that “nature experience reduces rumination” and “subgenual prefrontal cortex activation” or, in layman’s terms, bright daylight, fresh air, and the sights, sounds and smells of nature improve your mood. Try to include 30 minutes of movement – walking or running in your kids’ day – perhaps on their lunch break or after the school day ends.
There are abundant opportunities for a brisk stroll in Princeton. Nassau and Witherspoon Streets are always diverting; right now, they are decorated with multiple festooned evergreen trees. Princeton University, of course, offers a picturesque stroll even in the winter with its beautiful buildings, birds, and black squirrels. For hikers, there are the Institute Woods, Mountain Lakes, the towpath around Lake Carnegie and Princeton Battlefield Park to explore. Just be sure to wear your galoshes because trails are muddy right now.
A less well-known Princeton gem is the D&R Greenway Poetry Trail. It is open for walking and reading (all of the adjacent park buildings are closed). You and your child can meander through the peaceful path and read plaques containing the works of poets ranging from Princeton’s own C.K Williams to Nikki Giovanni, Walt Whitman, and Shakespeare. Comfortable benches are provided so you can sit, reread and ponder these inspiring works.
3. Read a few pages of an exciting or inspiring book to feed your mind. Researchers discovered that after only six minutes of reading, test subjects’ stress was reduced by up to 68 percent. Another recent survey found that people “who read books regularly are on average more satisfied with life, happier, and more likely to feel the things they do in life are worthwhile.” There are perks to being a bookworm.
If you don’t have a compelling book on hand, Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street is offering socially distanced shopping and curbside pickup. See their website for suggestions and make a selection to pick up. You can also sign up for the Kids’ and Young Adults Book-a-Month program where a staff member selects and ships a new selection to your home based on your child’s preferences.
As always, Princeton Public Library has got your back. The library and its book store are open for socially distanced browsing and express services. Check their website for the hours and virtual or socially distanced events that they sponsor. Among their offerings this month are “The Snowy Day StoryWalk” an in-person, socially distanced, read- aloud that takes young children on a tour of the library grounds. They also offer several virtual book clubs for teens and younger children, coding for girls classes, and an online personal storytelling workshop for teens and adults. Go to the events listing on their website for dates and times.
4. Have a short dance break to get you out of your head and back in your body. According to one study “dance is both a physical and emotional release, it’s ideal for people experiencing stress, depression, and anxiety.” Research shows that dance, in particular, can decrease anxiety and boost mood more than other physical outlets. You can dance alone, but having a family or roommate dance party can improve your mood too. Research shows that dancing collectively creates a stress-busting, uplifting sense of community.
If you want to add to your dance move repertoire, the Arts Council of Princeton is offering socially distanced, in-person flamenco dance classes. They are held in the spacious Solley Theater on Witherspoon Street. Check out the Arts Council of Princeton webpage to reserve a space.
5. Watch cute or funny animal videos. Think this is a waste of time? Experts say it helps. According to a recent wellness article in The Washington Post, watching cute content online is “easy and accessible, a quick in and out that gives us a little lift.” Another study went further, showing that ‘blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety went down in participants 30 minutes after watching a cute animal video. Average blood pressure dropped from 136/88 to 115/71 – an ideal blood pressure range – and heart rates lowered significantly.
If you want to see cute animals in real life Terhune Orchards always has sheep, goats and other barnyard animals to pet. There are trails to wander and farm equipment to climb on. Your child can even download an app to show friends their progress through the geocaching trails at the farm.
During the winter season, Terhune has put out benches, fire pits and heaters and is selling snacks and s’more hot cocoa kits for the kids. They also have hot mulled wine to keep the adults happy and toasty.
We should all be carefully curating what our kids let into their minds and bodies during these unprecedented times, not letting them spend too much time on social media, avoiding junk food, getting exercise and connecting with friends and family in a safe way. But all children will still have their negative moments. If the destabilizing circumstances of the pandemic start weighing your kids down and their moods sink, don’t forget that distraction is there for them. It works.
Lucia Wallis Smith is a psychotherapist at Clear Mind Counseling in Princeton. She specializes in the treatment of Anxiety, Social Phobia and Panic Disorder. She loves writing about mental health issues and helping adults and teens manage anxiety and panic so they can pursue the life that they always wanted.