Your Child’s Mental Health vs. the Coronavirus

There is no doubt that we’re living in challenging times. Never before in modern recorded history have billions of people been simultaneously shut down in their homes for the public good. In the United States, “safer at home” orders were issued across the country and schools closed, which affected approximately 50.8 million public school children. This complete upheaval of their usual routine has left many young children feeling anxious and uncertain. 36.5 million Americans have lost their jobs, so many parents and caretakers are struggling with financial pressures. Add to that the strain of being responsible for their children’s daily schooling (not to mention their own rising rates of anxiety induced by the stressful circumstances), many parents find themselves overwhelmed. It’s unfortunate that just when our children need us most, many of us are struggling with our own mental health. Never before has resilience counted more!

Strain Exacerbates Abuse

This pandemic has caused a kind of forced camaraderie that has brought out the best in many families. Some find value in having extra time to spend together and are innovating fun family activities to enjoy together. Others are undeniably feeling the strain of too much “togetherness”. Most parents seem to cope fairly well with meeting their children’s basic needs, however, the extra strain of schooling while trying to maintain a home-based work routine is incredibly taxing. According to a report aired by CNN on May 17th, reports of child abuse are down; that’s a bad sign. The abuse is undoubtedly occurring at record rates but not being reported as effectively. One major reporting segment–teachers and school staff–are not reporting right now as they are simply not seeing their children due to school closures. “When children are no longer visible to the vast majority of people who are trained and required to report, and then you see this kind of decline, we get super concerned,” said Melissa Jonson-Reid, a professor of social work research at Washington University in St. Louis.

We know that the experiences that’s surround children during their crucial formative years can dramatically influence their brain development and may result in lifelong physical and mental repercussions. When trauma is prolonged and sustained, these Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) result in damaging toxic stress. Research shows that the best way to counteract ACEs is to ensure that children have at least one stable, positive adult influence in their lives. This person serves as a buffer against adversity and can mitigate some of the negative affects of toxic stress.

For this reason, one of the most effective ways to ensure childhood stability is to reinforce and support the mental health of the adults in children’s lives. Mentally healthy adults really are the most important factor in developing mentally healthy children. So how do we support adults during the coronavirus outbreak as a way of supporting their children?

Established Wisdom Holds True

Working parents need to preserve their own mental health and sanity during these times. This advice may seem commonplace now but it’s worth restating.

  1. Ensure your you are receiving proper nutrition; eat healthy food regularly.
  2. Sleep soundly. Periods of high anxiety can result in sleep disruption. Try to ensure that you get at least 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep at night. Get guidelines from the Sleep Foundation here.
  3. Exercise daily while respecting social distancing guidelines; try to get outside and walk as much as possible. While gyms may be closed, walking, biking, and jogging are all free.
  4. Avoid abusing substances including alcohol. At times like these, some people turn to substances to help them cope but this only results in added problems and complications. Find helpful advice on the subject here.
  5. Discard what isn’t working for you. If a regular activity suddenly feels like a burden, leave it for now. Be kind and gentle to yourself. Practice turning your inner voice–that may be self-critical or worrying–into the voice of a true friend who only encourages and calms you.

Try to Simply “Be”

Many parents feel as if they’re failing their children at the moment. Most parents aren’t qualified mathematics teachers! And nor should they be expected to be. One piece of sound advice is as follows: how you are being with your child is more important than what you’re doing with them. In other words, the atmosphere or emotional environment in which your family is interacting needs to be one of security, protection, and open communication. Academic prowess can take a back seat to quality time spent reassuring, communicating, and simply laughing together.

Communicate Perspective

Children will naturally have questions about why things have changed so dramatically and so suddenly. Open communication really is the best approach. Talk in an age-appropriate way with your children about the COVID-19 pandemic. Our FREE, online training entitled: “Supporting Children During COVID-19” may help you. You can be honest about what is happening but reassuring at the same time. Let them know that plans are being worked out and that things will get better, although you should acknowledge that they may not be exactly the same as before. Avoid lying to your child in order to protect them. They are absorbing information (even if you are aware of it) from new stories, social media, and online interactions with schoolmates.

Perspective can be a great help. For all of human history, people have braved epidemics, wars, and famine, and have survived and thrived. The current situation is not forever; as the old adage goes: “this, too, shall pass.” The natural impatience of young children makes these arguments hard to fathom but there is comfort in knowing that this situation is not unique.

Routines Bring Control and Alleviate Stress

Routine is especially useful to children. It makes them feel secure to know what is coming next and what is expected of them. Establishing different routines for school days versus weekends is useful. A varied schedule that includes time for school lessons,  physical activity, including outdoor time (where possible), fun and games (music, arts and crafts, board games, or other play), and then free time when your child can choose what they wish to do. This timetable should be interspersed with healthy meals and familiar activities like bath time, story time, and any other routines your child may be used to. You may benefit from our FREE online training entitled: “How to Structure Your Child’s Day for Success”.

Mom and Dad’s Work is a Real Thing!

For the first time, many parents are having to explain to their children that they really do need to actually work from home! Children who are used to their parents going out to work may find it more difficult to respect the idea that, although their parents are present in the house, they may be unavailable to communicate because they are working. This is a valuable lesson for children to learn at any age. If they are a little older, it might be appropriate to discuss the fact that as an adult you have responsibilities other than your family and that you need to honor your commitments. Of course, it’s vital that you try to carve out enough quality time to meet your children’s social and emotional needs.

Help Your Child’s to Exercise Their Resilience Muscle

The good news is that children are extraordinarily resilient. Their ability to bounce back from adversity is astonishing. As an adult, you play a key role in this. Resilience is a muscle that needs to be exercised to grow. You can reinforce your child’s independence, autonomy, and sense of self-esteem by pointing out things they are able to do and achieve on their own. Always remind them that temporary failures are not permanent; they will get another chance to try again. A resilient child is one who is far more likely to face life’s ups and downs with courage and strength. Studies show that children who have experienced difficulties and learned to overcome them fare better than overly-protected children when they enter the harsher adult world.

See This Time as a Unique Gift

We may never again be in a world where the pause button has been pressed. How can we spend this time wisely? Do you have  a home-based project you have wanted to do for years but never got around to? Try tackle it now! Have you always wanted to try a skill like cooking, gardening, or learning a new language? The chance may not come again! Online, people have shared stories of cleaning out their closets, painting their bedrooms, training their pets, writing their first short story, etc. – all these accomplishments provide the antidote to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Our children are looking to us to let them know that things are okay. The messages we are giving them now will stay with them for many years, possibly forever. What an opportunity to build our own resilience by teaching it to our children! In the coming years, we will reap what we have sown during these times. Try to make sure your household reaps a stronger family so you can emerge from the crisis not as victims but as survivors.

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