The term “unprecedented” has been used so often in the COVID-19 pandemic that it seems almost meaningless now, but we really are living through an event that the world has never seen before. In a time of prolonged uncertainty, mental health struggles seem to be amplified, and many parents are concerned about the effect that this disruption to routine is having on their family’s emotional well-being.
Usually when August arrives in Austin, families begin to look forward to going back to school. This year, no one is exactly sure what that will look like. Regardless if school is virtual, in person, or a hybrid – here are some tips for protecting your family’s mental health.
🌸 Make Time for Connection
You may already be struggling with how you are going to manage full-time work, overseeing your children’s online learning, household and pet management, and maintaining a healthy partner relationship – but don’t forget to have some quality family time. Family connection makes kids feel secure, protected, accepted, and loved, which can set them up for a lifetime of healthy relationships. We are fundamentally social creatures and connection is perhaps the greatest determinant of well-being and psychological health. Plus, it might be the most meaningful thing your kids remember about this uncertain time.
Here are some ways you can make quality time happen in your family:
- Use everyday time together to talk and share a laugh. Family meals are a perfect time to check in with each other.
- Have one-on-one chats with each family member to strengthen individual relationships. It can just be five minutes before each child goes to bed.
- Set aside some time with your partner, if you have one. Remember that you are modeling the importance of nurturing relationships for your kids.
- Do regular, fun things together as a family. Instituting a family board game night each week might get some groans at first, but it provides an opportunity for further connection and communication.
🌹 Create a Schedule for Yourself and Your Children
Children need structure and clearly communicated expectations in order to make sense of their worlds. An erasable wall calendar might be a big tool in creating a schedule for each child’s online learning, breaks, meals, and chores. Involve your kids in setting up the schedule. Try to stay flexible—there will be days your kids need some downtime – but when you have a clear schedule, it takes a lot of pressure off you to continually nag about getting things done.
“Studies in resiliency during traumatic events encourage keeping a routine to your day,” says Deborah Serani, PsyD, professor of psychology at Adelphi University and author of “Sometimes When I’m Sad.” “This means eating meals at regular times, sleeping, waking and exercising at set times, and maintaining social (socially distant) contact. Unstructured time can create boredom and spikes in anxiety or depression, which can lead to unhealthy patterns of coping.”
🌺 Build Physical Activity Into Your Day
Physical movement is great for burning off excess energy and fighting feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s as easy as a family walk around the neighborhood in the morning before school and work begin – not to mention beating the heat! If your family prefers to stay inside, check out online fitness classes or invest in some equipment to create a small home gym. Remember to put physical activity on your family’s schedule.
🌻 Limit Your Family’s Exposure to the News
It is tempting to be tuned into the news 24/7 right now, but ultimately, relentless exposure to news is not healthy and it can be scary, especially for small children. Set firm boundaries on how much news your family consumes and through what source.
🌼 Remember that Anxiety Can Be Contagious
The most important thing you can do to safeguard your family’s mental health is to try to manage your own stress level. Your children will take their cues from how the adults in their lives are reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic. Communicate reasonable concern and enforce responsible social distancing, but try not to focus on worst-case scenarios.
🌸 Watch for Signs of Depression
The risk for depression is particularly high for tweens and teens when they feel isolated from their friends. The uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last, the increase in time for rumination, and the heightened levels of conflict on social media are all contributing factors to a sense of unease that sensitive kids and young adults may have a hard time expressing. If you have a kid who is at risk for depression, stay watchful for signs of worsening mental health and seek help if necessary.
🌹 Acknowledge Painful Changes Due to Social Isolation
Allow your kids to talk about their feelings of sadness over the things they are missing due to social isolation. Not every loss is as meaningful as missing graduation or Prom, but loss is loss. Missing an annual celebratory swim party may not seem as important to you, but it might have been the thing your child was looking forward to the most. Try to listen without offering judgment or commentary – sometimes the thing that makes kids feel better is simply feeling heard.
🌺 Practice Gratitude
This is not the easiest thing to do right now, particularly if your family has felt the more brutal effects of the pandemic, like job or business loss, illness, or lost loved ones. But practicing gratitude for the things we do have has been shown again and again to be hugely beneficial to mental health. For instance, researchers have found that a practice of writing down five things you are grateful for is linked to increased emotional resiliency and health.
🌻 Remember that Perfectionism is the Enemy
The pandemic is going to end and some sort of normal life will resume. Don’t beat yourself up when things are not going perfectly in your household. If the kids watch too much Netflix or play too many hours of video games, it’s not the end of the world. Things are going to be topsy-turvy for a while, and if you can’t stick to your schedule or can’t fit in your at-home workout every day, it’s really not such a big deal in the long run. Your kids are not going to fall behind other kids in their schooling because everyone is experiencing the same disruption. It’s much more valuable to everyone to cut yourself some slack, use the time to reflect on the important things, and try to keep a sense of “we’re all in this together” at the forefront.
Matijevich is a mother, writer, and psychotherapist in Austin.