Mental Health: Coping Strategies For Children & Parents During Covid-19
In this unprecedented time, how can we enable success for our children and ourselves?
During Alternative Food Network’s livestream, child and adolescent psychologists Drs. Jennifer Felsher and Dahlia Fisher provide terrific insights about parenting during the coronavirus crisis.
How to Be Realistically Reassuring for Your Children
Realistically reassuring means being reassuring but truthful with your children and not making promises that you can’t keep. According to Dr. Fisher, when speaking with children about serious matters, “we can never guarantee to our children that everything is going to be fine but we can help our children base their thoughts and feelings on what’s most likely”. With the COVID-19 situation, there is so much uncertainty so it’s difficult to know what is “most likely”. Dr. Fisher recommends reassuring our children that we are doing everything that we can within our control, which includes washing our hands, socially distancing, limiting our exposure to the media and taking care of ourselves. As parents, “we can reassure our kids that they don’t have to run the show” and they have parents who are keeping them as safe as possible during this time.
Dr. Felsher recommends not using the term “the new normal” as in her opinion this is not reassuring for children. If your child asks when they can go back to school or when their sports or other activities will resume, don’t sugarcoat but reassure them that while we are not sure when, they will be able to go back to their activities when the time is right and when the officials let us know when it’s safe.
What does “I’m Bored” Really Mean?
While bored can certainly mean your child is just bored, Dr. Fisher says that sometimes it can mean “I’m lonely” or “I’m feeling isolated” or “I’m depressed”. While everyone is impacted by social isolation, for teenagers, for example, friends are their lifeline; though not everyone can navigate the shift from in-person to online. Not everyone is included in the same way. When kids aren’t in a natural environment of being together, it’s harder for some than others to stay connected.
For younger kids who may not have the words to describe exactly how they’re feeling, according to Dr. Felsher, “I’m bored” might mean they are missing what they are used to doing or they’re feeling stressed.
What should parents do when their kids say they’re bored? Dr. Felsher suggests helping children learn the appropriate language for their feelings. Investigate and ask “What do you mean by bored?” and suggest different feelings if their language isn’t developed enough such as “Does it mean you feel sad? Does it mean you’re feeling tired? Are you feeling scared?”. If it actually means bored, perhaps assist them in structuring themselves and organizing an activity.
Dr. Fisher adds that it’s ok to be bored too. It sometimes opens up the space for creativity. She adds that parents can also find an activity that the whole family can do together whether it’s going outside, playing a board game, doing a puzzle or calling family members. According to Dr. Fisher, it reminds children “I’m here. I might not be your first choice but I’m here”. While it may seem difficult to drop everything during the day and play with your children, according to Dr. Felsher, play is a good break for parents too.
“If you’re working and can’t physically be overseeing your child, especially if they’re younger, you’ve got to practice letting a lot of things go,” says Dr. Fisher. With older kids, help them recognize their patterns of behaviour such as grumpiness that can result from too much screen time in order to set them up for success the following day.
For adolescents who connect socially with their friends on screens, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing according to Dr. Felsher. As a parent, ask your teen what they are doing on the phone and with whom are they speaking. Have an open conversation with your child about what they do online so you as a parent understand better what their online world is all about. However, when it comes to a schedule for usage and whether screens should be taken away for bedtime, Dr. Fisher replies with a “hard yes”. Sleep is so important for physical and mental health.
Best practices for sleep hygiene include:
• Having a time for turning screens off.
• Stop screens at least an hour before going to sleep.
• No screens in bedroom at night and charge outside the bedroom.
When it comes to adolescents being excluded online by their peers, it’s important for parents to validate their child’s feelings. Ask the child if there is someone else they can call. It’s also important as parents to figure out if your child is actually being excluded or is your child retreating. Perhaps they would actually be welcomed by the peer group if they tried to engage.
Self-Care for Parents
Give yourself permission to prioritize family connections over an immaculate home. Get dressed in the morning. Have a routine. Go outside. “It makes the difference psychologically…when you do some basic self care,” says Dr. Felsher. Dr. Felsher also recommends exercising 3-4 times per week. It might be hard to get motivated right now but “it’s critical both for your physical health and also for your mental health.” Many online exercise classes are even being offered for free right now.
It’s also important for parents to manage their own anxiety right now. “Look at yourself and what’s keeping you up at night and find a way to manage yourself,” says Dr. Fisher. During this coronavirus, “it really is that much more important to make those efforts to do things that make you feel good,” says Dr. Felsher.
If you have a partner, work on being on the same page as your partner and take the time to have those conversations with your partner about what you need and what your partner needs. “The more you put your needs out there, the better chance you have of getting them met,” says Dr. Fisher.
Tips for a Healthy Lifestyle
In addition to good quality sleep, exercise and self-care, diet is also an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Esther Garfin of Alternative Food Network agrees and refers to the recent publication of her podcast interview about the connection between diet and mental health. Listen here to the 2-part episode titled Food and Mood which is part of Alternative Food Network’s Doctors+ podcast series.