Topics: COVID-19 + Family Mental Health
The longer families are homebound due to COVID-19, the greater the concerns about child, teen, and parent mental health. We are struggling to cope with challenges never dreamed of, all while feeling more isolated from those we’d typically turn to for support. Not knowing how long the pandemic will last, many families want to know what they can do to manage the day-to-day at home, and support the long-term emotional health of their kids.
Fortunately, in this time of uncertainty, there are some things we do know about supporting child emotional development. Below is a summary of advice that experts from the Clay Center and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have shared with a wide range of media outlets. Click on the links within each tip for more detailed guidance in the original story.
1. Take care of yourself. It may feel impossible, but TRY.
This is probably the hardest and most important thing to do. You cannot take care of your kids or loved ones if you don’t tend to your own needs. Think about what you personally need to get by right now, and make a plan to prioritize that. For some, lack of sleep is debilitating, so sleep needs to be the number one priority. Others depend on some kind of dedicated time alone each day, away from everyone else. And don’t forget about your mindset – not holding yourself to the same standards as pre-COVID or mentally giving yourself permission to make mistakes could be an important part of self-care. “Maybe you didn’t get it right, but it was good enough at the time. This is a novel virus, and these are novel times,” says MGH Clay Center executive director Dr. Gene Beresin. Finally, if you have a partner or other adult member of the household, talk about the importance of taking care of yourselves, and do your best to support each other in prioritizing what you each need.
Tips from The Boston Globe’s In the Family Way
2. Ask your child what’s hard for them.
As a parent, you likely have your own concerns about your child’s emotional health. But don’t forget to ask them what they are worried or frustrated about. Their answer may be different than you think. Do they miss going out with their friends? Are they afraid of falling behind in class? Are they bored? Do they feel like they have no privacy? Do they have Zoom fatigue, or feel anxious about being on video during remote learning? “The more information you can get about what’s happening, the better. Talk to your kids about friendships, about what they’re expecting, about what they’re nervous about. All of these things can make what’s unclear a little bit clearer, which is going to help anxiety,” says Dr. Ellen Braaten of the MGH Learning and Emotional Assessment Program. If you know what’s impacting your child, from their point of view, you’ll have a place to start in supporting them.
3. Use positive messages in conversations at home.
Especially now, with many families home together more than ever before, what you say and model in conversations can have a big impact on your child’s short- and long-term emotional health. “If kids are overhearing anything, they’re hearing how someone interacts with someone else,” says Dr. J. Stuart Ablon, director of Think: Kids at MGH. Be mindful of what you do (and don’t) say in conversations your child or teen might overhear, even if you don’t think they’re around. Everything from framing political commentary in a positive way, to sharing your own personal stories about managing relationships, says Dr. Beresin, can help to support your child’s well-being.
Tips from Fatherly
4. Approach school this year with a collaborative attitude.
There are going to be continued struggles and stresses ahead, whether your child is remote learning, in-person learning, hybrid learning, or going back and forth between any of these. Stay up to date on what’s going on in your school district, as best you can. And when you advocate for your child’s needs, try to assume that everyone is frustrated right now and trying their absolute hardest – we all need kindness and understanding right now. “Look at this as a very collaborative process, knowing that [teachers] are struggling too, and we’re all in this together,” says Dr. Braaten. “You don’t want to start in on this with, ‘I’m up for a fight.’ It may get there, but it’s better to not start with that.” And when it comes to your kids, especially adolescents, remember to keep in mind the impact of everything they are missing social-emotionally, beyond the academics. “Have a lot of generosity and grace with your middle-schoolers and high-schoolers,” says Dr. Elizabeth Pinsky of MassGeneral Hospital for Children.
5. Monitor your child for gaps in development.
“The great thing about the brain is plasticity. We have the ability to recapture experiences that we had some gaps in… It’s a matter of parents and teachers and tutors and coaches and older siblings and needing to know what needs monitoring,” says Dr. Beresin. While kids are often more resilient and adaptable than we realize, there are also real concerns about loss in social-emotional and academic development with continued remote learning, especially for schoolchildren who were already at a disadvantage. You know your child best. Monitor your child for gaps in learning, socialization, and relationships, and involve other adults in doing the same. This way, you can do your best to supplement what you can now, at home, and will know what areas of development may need the most attention down the road.
6. Get creative about social-emotional support.
“The social-emotional aspects of learning are quite critical, not just for elementary school kids but for kids of all developmental levels – pre-school, school-age, high school kids, even college students. It’s a critical part of education,” says Dr. Beresin. Parents will need to be adaptive, creative, and flexible when it comes to exploring ways to connect socially – digitally, in-person physically distanced and with masks, with family, etc. Also, find out what is most important to your child about how they socialize with friends and peers, right now. For example, some children or teens may actually prefer digital means of communication to physically distancing with masks on. For others, feeling they have privacy to connect openly with friends may be the most important thing, whether it is in person, or digitally by video or text message.
Tips from Morning on Canada Talks
7. Get creative about hugs and physical distancing.
“Human beings need social contact,” says Dr. Beresin, and something as simple as a mutual hug can go a long way to support one’s mood. But in the middle of a pandemic, giving and getting a hug is a lot more complicated. Your household family may or may not be huggers, but if you are, don’t let the stress of the pandemic make you forget about the power of human contact. You all might need an extra hug right now – younger kids, especially, but not excluding teens. When it comes to others outside of the household, you may feel it’s appropriate to take a harm reduction approach and seriously assess and plan out the safety of any hugs with others. But there may also be other ways to feel close to loved ones and friends that you see but cannot touch, like sharing memories or sharing an experience, even if you can’t physically connect – you just have to get creative.
Tips from Harvard Health
8. Act on any mental health concerns.
Finally, remember: It’s okay to not be okay. It is part of being human to go through mental health challenges when faced with ongoing, overwhelming events. This is also why we have entire clinical fields devoted to mental health – so we know of ways to help when things are not okay. As a parent, you know your child best. If you have concerns about their mental, emotional, or behavioral health:
This is an extraordinary time, with no absolute answers, and we know families are working through similar and unique challenges. But in this time of isolation and uncertainty, remember that you are not alone, that there are things in your power to help your children and teens at home, and that there is support out there for you and your family, when you need it.