Very little about our lives is “normal” right now, even for those of us in the best of circumstances. We’re all expected to do more, adapt quickly, and take on new responsibilities. Many, if not most, of us are going to have some mental health impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, and so are our kids. Thankfully, there are many excellent resources for dealing with stress and change in general, and for coronavirus in particular. In this post, we list a few of the resources that have been helpful for us and tell a few of our own strategies for coping with coronavirus.
We hope these stories and strategies will help other parents who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed to realize that they’re not alone. We know that we write from a position of privilege where we have not lost our jobs, have access to food and shelter, and are in safe relationships. For many of our readers, this may not be the case, and our experiences will not be comparable.
If you, or someone you care about, are feeling overwhelmed with sadness, depression, loneliness, or anxiety, or feel like you want to harm yourself or others, call Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 (TTY 1-800-846-8517). Your health insurance company or employer may have free resources available for mental health emergencies.
The importance of self-care
As parents, we have to take care of ourselves first. It’s like putting on your own oxygen mask in the airplane before assisting others. That means it’s okay to give ourselves and our families some room to express our feelings, even if they’re feelings of frustration or anger.
An important part of self-care is taking care of your body. Get as much rest as you can. Get your body moving any way you can, whether that’s going for a walk or following an exercise video in your living room. Try to find things you can enjoy, both alone and as a household. If possible, engage your family in cooking and exercising. If you find yourself increasingly using substances like alcohol or cannabis, or experience a significant change in your eating habits, it may be a good idea to reach out for support.
Many of us, including some of the SciMoms, have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, and the changes of this pandemic have been difficult. The disruption of routines that were part of daily care, the lack of contact with established support systems, and the isolation that has been critical to flattening the curve, can all worsen existing mental health conditions or contribute to new mental illness. Be sure to check in on friends and family that have mental health conditions, and stay connected with people outside your home.
SciMom Anastasia has had success with regular video chats: “Thankfully we just added project management software with a chat function for my office, and the friendly banter has been so nice. And, having a group of friends to chat with is wonderful in the best of times, but my fellow SciMoms have become a lifeline.” SciMom Layla schedules daily video chats with friends and family, and has started playing on-line board games with a group of friends, with video and audio. She adds: “My son gets to have video chats with his friends and cousins whenever he wants.”
SciMom Jenny says to build in time for some good self-care habits, like a quiet moment to yourself or active meditation, but it’s also important to acknowledge that perfect emotional health just isn’t realistic. If you end up having an extra glass of wine or your own personal tantrum for an hour each day, cut yourself some slack. We’re all dealing with a lot right now. She says, “If your self-care model is 85% healthy and about 15% stealing your kids’ chocolate, that’s perfectly okay.” Unless it makes you happy, definitely don’t feel the need to take up a new project or recreate something from Instagram. It’s ok to acknowledge that coping with coronavirus is a full time job itself.
Another important part of self-care is being careful about how much news we view. It’s good to stay informed but constant updates can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. The American Psychological Association recommends 5 Ways to View Coverage of the Coronavirus, including getting information only from trusted sources like the CDC, WHO, and AAP and staying connected with people who are part of your support system.
For more advice on coping during a pandemic, including specific advice for parents, medical professionals, and those who are under quarantine, visit the US Centers for Disease Control’s page on Stress and Coping. Be sure to look at the menu on the left hand side of the CDC’s COVID-19 pages for more important information.
Caring for our kids’ mental health
As we struggle to get through this strange time, don’t forget that our children are dealing with a lot, too. Social distancing, closure of schools and work, and not interacting with friends and family is a lot for adults to deal with; it’s even harder for children who may not understand why so much has changed so quickly. As we work on our own self-care, it is also important to allow our kids some slack.
The National Association of School Psychologists has a lot of advice on Helping Children Cope with Changes Resulting from COVID-19. Check out their post for a lot of helpful information on coping with coronavirus, but these points are key:
- Remember that our kids can hear us talking about the pandemic, and they notice our behavior, including how their caregiver is stressed and glued to the news on their phone.
- Be careful about how you talk about COVID-19 in front of your kids. Explain social distancing in an age-appropriate manner.
- Help your kids focus on the positive. For example, encourage kids to think about what they are grateful for each day.
- Establish and maintain a daily routine. This will look different for every family but maintaining a schedule and some semblance of normalcy can be important for kids. SciMom Alison has found this to be key for her own well-being and her kids, especially her 6 year old son. Her schedule isn’t very detailed but it helps her and her husband get some work done and not hear the dreaded “I’m bored.” “It’s to the point now, where if we don’t follow the schedule, my son gets frustrated that he isn’t doing all his activities. He is keeping us on task!”
- Identify projects that children can focus on, especially things that help others. For example, decorating your front windows or chalking your sidewalk with a friendly message can be a fun distraction and spread (and receive) good cheer.
- As always, it is important to model positive behavior for our kids and offer lots of love, affection, and comfort. We find that these things also happen to help us feel better too. SciMom Anastasia says that taking time for extra cuddles has been really important: “my daughter, spouse, and I are all craving extra connection right now.”
If your kids act up, try to remember that there is usually a good reason for their behavior. As Erin Leyba LCSW, PhD writes in Not Naughty: 10 Ways Kids Appear to Be Acting Bad But Aren’t:
“When we recognize kids’ unwelcome behaviors as reactions to environmental conditions, developmental phases, or our own actions, it lets us respond proactively, and with much more compassion.”
Dr. Leyba’s post was published pre-pandemic but the advice definitely applies today. There are many ways that stress manifests in kids’ behavior, including reduced impulse control, expression of big feelings, and physical outbursts stemming from the biological need for movement and play (see Dr. Leyba’s post for details). Those big feelings are natural and should be legitimized, not minimized. Try to identify the source of big feelings as your kids are coping with coronavirus.
Sometimes talking through issues can help, and other times children may need something else. SciMom Anastasia notes that her daughter needs movement breaks throughout the day. She created an “activity menu” that includes dancing to GoNoodle, hula hooping while watching a cartoon, doing some yoga, and playing Just Dance. They also got some putty to squeeze while she does her schoolwork. Anastasia says, “I had to buy a second container of putty because I found myself taking hers to squish my tension out while I telework, and I do some movement breaks with her, which helps my focus, too!” Many strategies that are often used for children work surprisingly well in adults.
In the context of the pandemic, many children are struggling to adapt to a completely different life than they had a short time ago. Take your cues from them as much as possible. Some children (and adults!) need a more rigid routine, while others thrive in a more relaxed environment. Be gentle with them, and with yourself.
Coping with COVID-19
At the end of the day, no one has to be the world’s greatest parent, especially right now. Just aim to be the world’s okayest parent, and know that’s all we can ask of ourselves right now.
Find more information about COVID-19 in SciMom Alison’s post: Coronavirus Shows We Still Suck At Assessing Risk.