At the start of this pandemic, my family like many across our nation, prepared for a sprint. We dug deep for the burst of energy and the explosive performance of the 200 meters we imagined in store for us. As a psychiatrist and parent of three, I have recognised moments of COVID fatigue and frustration as our initial mental preparation has needed to be reconfigured into a COVID marathon. I remember the minute when my college freshman found out he would not be on campus this fall or the disappointment on my daughter’s face when she burst into my study to chat about the first day of virtual school, only to find me stuck on a call running over.
These are not tragic losses, yet they do still require compassion as a parent. Role conflict is something many of us are feeling as we juggle multiple roles from the backdrop of our living room. Our winding path of creativity will soon require winterising of our tires as we prepare for the road ahead. How can we support our children and teens as we move forward with our new normal?
Routines are a helpful component of stress management. Have rituals that reinforce a clear beginning and an end to the day, healthy breaks from screen time, intentional time built in for self-care, and mindfulness. Converse with your children and teens as you do these things for yourself and encourage them to join you. Even a few minutes of mindfulness can help them regulate their emotions and increase self-awareness.
Starting the day with a routine such as a healthy breakfast, a walk symbolising a commute, and a “drop off at school” hug can give your child a familiar start to their virtual day. After school snack and a walk outside with you will give them some necessary movement, space for reflection, and Vitamin D. Even as temperatures drop, bundle up and head outside. Incorporating your pets into your child’s regular routines may also have a calming effect. Handlin and colleagues found short-term interactions with dogs decreased cortisol levels and heart rate.
Carve out time for your child.
This may be counterintuitive. You may feel as if you are always with your child right now, but existing in the same space for an extended time may not necessarily feel like quality time. Be intentional about taking a break and how you want to connect. Find joyful ways to spend time and incorporate play in as much as you can. Give them opportunities to increase their self-efficacy. Have them explore something new and be their “sous-chef” in the activity. With teens, provide plenty of space for two-way communication strategies amidst some bonding time. Finding times when your breaks overlap with their schedules may require flexibility and planning.
Care for self.
Model self-care and be intentional about discussing it. Be curious about their thoughts and ideas around what it means to take care of self. Find age-appropriate ways to discuss COVID safe practices, sleep hygiene, effects of the food we put in our bodies, benefits of exercise, and how mindfulness helps. Explore your child’s understanding of the mind-body connection and how caring for ourselves can affect how we feel. Implement self-care strategies into your daily routine and invite teens to join you. Demonstrate self-compassion when you are having a busier day and can’t meet your goals. Discuss how asking for help is a sign of strength and accessing support from safe individuals in your life is a healthy behaviour during times of stress. For teens, consider the increased time being spent with technology, and discuss your family values and what it means to respect each other on technology and social media.
Cultivate space to discuss emotions.
Family dinners are a great space to allow family members to share and to feel seen and heard. As parents, we might want to represent necessary stability and security for our children with the multitude of stressors in the world and on the news. However, it is also necessary to be human and model stress management. Expressing our emotions and modelling healthy communication allows us to share with our children and teens that stress is manageable and we can develop strategies to deal with it. A child or teen may feel more comfortable conversing alone with a parent and not in front of other family members. This could require flexibility if your child wants to have a conversation at a time different than when you do.
Chalk designs and more outside.
Research showing the positive effects of nature on well-being are well established. Margaret Rietano of The Elements DC recommends getting children out into nature to “experience awe walking along Rock Creek, listening to the creek babbling, and watching the sunlight sparkle off the water.” Elizabeth Cutler, a preschool teacher at The Country Day School in McLean and mother of three, gathers natural supplies from her backyard and makes nature mandalas on her kitchen countertop with her children. Some of my own favourite finds on walks during COVID are the positive chalk messages on driveways around the neighbourhood. As temperatures begin to drop, continue to dress warmly, and get outside for short breaks. En plein air, frisbee, biking, and so much more awaits you.
Get in touch if you have any questions about the symptoms you or your child are experiencing.
Stress is normal and produces a physiological response in all of us. Children and adolescents might feel some stress symptoms from this response. Symptoms might be more indicative of a treatable mental health disorder when they involve a cluster of symptomatology for a sustained duration of time and with a level of severity that causes functional impairment. Thoughts of self-harm or life not being worth living or hopelessness require the need to seek care immediately. If you have any questions about your child’s symptoms, contact a mental health professional or call your doctor.