Keeping Yourself & Your Family Mentally Healthy During Uncertain Times
by Caitlyn Hartjes, School Psychology Graduate Student
Keeping our children and ourselves happy and healthy is always a challenge, but in times of unrest and uncertainty it seems as if we are trying to accomplish the impossible.
Anxiety is something that we all may be facing to a certain extent. It is typically rooted in a sense of rigidity, and a feeling that life is out of control, which today’s unpredictable climate has amplified. Right now, children are feeling more anxious than ever and this may result in several noticeable behavioral changes. You may see them pushing back more, crying, or trying to connect with you in undesirable ways.
As parents and caregivers, there are many simple strategies that we can use in our everyday life to improve our mental health and our children’s. By decreasing anxiety within our children, we can decrease some of their challenging behaviors. This will help our own mental health. The process also works in reverse; by managing our own stress, we can stay calm when addressing theirs.
Here are some techniques and tricks to lower you and your children’s anxiety during uncertain times:
TIP ONE: Build a routine for you and your children
Knowing what to expect every day gives children a feeling of control and normalcy and helps to decrease levels of uncertainty. Right now, it may seem nearly impossible to keep a strict schedule with everyone’s daily routine constantly changing. However, at least committing to small constants in your schedule will help, such as waking up and going to bed at the same time each day.
For small children, if your schedule changes often it may be helpful to have a visual reference. Creating one at home is super easy to do! Place it on your fridge or on the wall, somewhere easily seen by all the kiddos in your house. Check out this link to view several at-home printables and instructions to set one up at your own home! For a daytime-only schedule, check out what the teachers here at The Well created.
TIP TWO: Reassure your children
Research has shown that many children are resilient to change, as long as they have a trusted adult guiding them through it. Simply being present for your children may be all they need right now. Don’t underestimate your own ability to help guide your children. Simply telling them it will be okay may be all they need right now. As many have found, the primary factor in a child’s recovery from a traumatic event such as a pandemic is having a supportive caring adult in their life.
We would not expect our children to be born with the ability to read, write, or do math, so we can’t expect them to know how to regulate their emotions.
One way to help your child is by simply validating their feelings. If they are feeling anxious or worried, reassure them that it is normal and okay to be feeling that right now and that this is a hard time. If they are simply disappointed they can’t go to the pool right now, validate that feeling too. And if they’re happy, embrace their happiness. Let them know that all feelings, no matter how big or small, are okay.
TIP THREE: Limit negativity
Right now, the news is filled with news about the pandemic and social unrest. Every day and every hour is filled with new information that can be stressful to see and hear. Children are more aware than you may know. Limit their intake (and even your own) as much as you can. If you are consistently listening, watching, or reading news it becomes easy to focus solely on the negative. Particularly, if you are watching and listening at night, mental health experts have found that it is more difficult to fall asleep as you begin to perseverate on the information. While it is at times necessary to listen to the news, intentionally seek out positive news for a balance. The Good News Network is a great website that only reports uplifting stories in its cycle.
With all this said, don’t be afraid to share the facts with your children. If they are curious and ask questions, share age appropriate information using vocabulary they can understand. This will help dispel rumors or falsehoods they may hear or be thinking themselves. Many children are afraid of getting the virus, and giving them facts may help to lower their anxiety. Here are some resources for how to talk to your kids about the pandemic, and suggestions for having conversations regarding race and recent events.
TIP FOUR: Teach your children how to manage their worries
We would not expect our children to be born with the ability to read, write, or do math, so we can’t expect them to know how to regulate their emotions. Just like many other subjects, children need to be taught how to take care of the mind, and this starts as young as preschool! I have done Social-Emotional Learning lessons with children as young as three, and have seen improvement in their ability to manage their emotions by the end of the year. At home, this can be done a bit differently, so if you don’t feel like an expert on it, that’s okay! Simply talking about their feelings or leading by example may be all your child needs for their mental health.
If you want to incorporate a daily mental health activity, I suggest a “Mindful Moment”; they’re simple and you don’t need to be an expert! There are great websites, YouTube videos, etc. that you can find to practice mindfulness. Here is a great website that walks you through different mindfulness activities for children. Ultimately, Mindful Moments help calm the mind and body, allow your child to focus, and they will begin to feel less anxiety over time.
If your child tends to actively worry, teach them strategies to ease their worries. This may come in the form of staying busy (i.e. a distraction from their anxieties), or pausing to incorporate “Worry Time”. “Worry Time” will give the child 5-10 minutes (or whatever time you want to allot) to simply sit and worry out loud. After they share their thoughts, begin a distracting activity to help them continue on with their day. Set a timer to signal the end of Worry Time, and plan a fun activity afterwards to help them transition easily from their worry time once they’ve shared all their feelings.
No matter which method you use (staying busy versus pausing), you and your child’s mental health will improve.
TIP FIVE: Teach your children self-efficacy
As mentioned earlier, a lot of anxiety is rooted in a loss of control, and learning self-efficacy (or someone’s belief in their own ability to complete a task) helps to give an individual a feeling of control. There are two main ways to help a child’s self-efficacy: the first is to teach a skill. These skills can range by age of the child. For younger children, learning to get dressed by themselves, brush their own teeth, or tie their own shoe may be sufficient enough to give them a sense of independence. For an older child, consider teaching a household task like mowing the lawn, or a new hobby like learning to paint or play the piano may be ways for them to grasp independence. Do not feel as if you have to be too creative or complicated with the skill they learn; sometimes small skills are all they may be able to handle right now . . . and all you have time to teach.
Another way to build self-efficacy is by giving your child approved choices in activities. Allowing them to choose for themselves helps to give them control and may even help with defiant behavior. A lot of defiant behavior is rooted in needing to feel control of their own actions, and feeling as if they are independent. For example, here’s a choice to help a child refusing to get ready for bed: “You can either get ready now and read a book (or another preferred activity) before bed, or get ready after this 5 minute timer goes off and not get to read a story”. The most important part of this is sticking with whatever they chose, so if they chose the timer that means no story time. If you really enjoy reading with your child before bed, don’t give them that as a choice they can decide against; only offer what you feel you can follow through with. Choices can be as simple as your child picking carrots or an apple at lunchtime. If they choose the activity, food, toy, etc they are more likely to follow through because they actually made the decision.
TIP SIX: Take care of yourself
As hard as this may seem right now because of a shift in priorities, please take care of yourself too! You can’t be an awesome parent, caregiver, teacher, or trusted adult if you don’t meet your own needs. The above tips, while geared toward children, will work for you as well. Find a routine for yourself, validate your own feelings, limit negative news coverage, and practice good mental health (mindfulness, exercise, etc). One of the most important things is take a break if you can. While working from home and homeschooling, you are constantly with your children, and you need breaks too. In a school crisis, we always say “know when to tag yourself out” – you can’t help the child if you’re not in the right head space. Right now we are all in a global crisis, and taking care of ourselves as adults is just as important as taking care of each other and our children. You can go for a walk, put the kids to bed early, watch your favorite TV show . . . just take some “me” time, whatever that may be. And if you’re struggling to home school, parent, and work all from home check out these tips.
Remember, you will get through this and so will your children. Children are extraordinarily resilient, often more so than us!
Caitlyn Hartjes is completing her graduate degree in School Psychology. She has provided numerous behavioral interventions and mental health services to students of diverse needs. She will be interning in Greeley, Colorado this year where she will work with linguistically diverse students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds.