Taking Care of Your Family's Mental HealthTuesday April 21, 2020
Coronavirus or COVID-19 is causing significant disruption to our lives. We are fearful of contracting the disease or someone we love becoming ill. People are setting up rooms where a sick family member could be isolated. We have financial concerns regarding the security of our jobs. Do we have enough food on hand? Should we sew our own cloth masks? What about making hand sanitizer from a website? New terms have become part of the vernacular: social distancing, PPE (personal protection equipment), “slow the spread,” 6-foot rule, “bend the curve,” and on and on. Spring Break plans have come and gone. Family traditions around Easter, Passover and Ramadan were radically adjusted to include relatives likewise quarantined, via the internet. What about summer? Programs for our children, vacations, and trips to see family and friends are on hold. The uncertainty permeates our thoughts. Our life feels uncomfortably out of control.
Everyone reacts differently to situations that are unclear or uncertain. Circumstances emanating from a pandemic or infectious disease outbreak require unfamiliar actions. By now, virtual learning has no doubt become routine. Working from home is the norm, unless your job is in health care, or you are a first responder or “essential.” Our world has been radically altered, and if and when it will go back to normal is only a guess.
How to Cope as Parents/Caregivers
Remember the airplane rule: when flying, if the cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks drop down, first secure your mask and then assist your child. You must first meet your own needs, and if you can manage that, you will best support your children. Experts advise that dealing with your own stress can be the most powerful way to help your children feel secure.
- Maintain a routine. Consistency and structure enhance your family’s sense of well-being. Sleep and eat in a predictable pattern, which will yield a calming effect.
- Make time for physical activity. Outside walks, jogs and games typically release some of the stress. Inside, consider yoga or dance parties. YMCAs and other gyms and studios are hosting virtual classes for a nominal membership fee.
- Limit your exposure to the news. Guard your own anxiety and recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed.
- Use video technology to connect with people who you value and bring you balance and perspective.
- Try meditation and mindfulness. Research apps that may interest you.
- Don’t put pressure on yourself. If you eat pizza three nights a week, avoid the guilt trip. Instead of calling it the “new normal,” think in terms of “this is today’s plan.”
How to Help Kids Cope
- Knowledge is power. Teach children basic information about the terms they are hearing and their meanings. Make sure you explain things simply and in an age-appropriate manner. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know, but reassure them that things will get better, and lots of people are working to help people get back to work and school and being with their friends.
- Limit kids’ exposure to news. Turn off laptops, TV and phones. Spend time doing games, activities or creating new family pass times.
- Encourage expressing feelings. Positive emotions are easy for adults to accept, but we should also be readily available to listen to anger, disappointment and worry. When children are comforted and reassured, it can decrease anxiety and give them a needed outlet for strong emotions. Our instinct with children is to appease, distract or fix what’s wrong. What is most effective is allowing all feelings to be safely expressed without judgment or offering a solution or distraction. A simple, “I know it is frustrating…,” “I am sure you wish that…,” or “Wow, you really are upset that...”
- “Give back” to empower kids. Video-call a grandparent or friend. Bring in the trash can for an elderly neighbor. Make homemade greeting cards for hospital workers or first responders.
- Be mindful of warning signs. Jerry Bubrick, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, explains that symptoms of stress in children vary. He suggests parents be attuned to an UNUSUAL or EXCESSIVE amount of these behaviors:
- Physical ailments, such as headaches, stomachaches
- Tantrums and meltdowns
- Difficulty sleeping
- Moodiness and irritability
- Reassurance seeking (“Are we going to get sick?” “Will grandma die?”)
- Reluctance to be separated from a parent
Resources for Families
Telehealth services with virtual support are readily available, usually in multiple languages.
- Texas 211 free referral and information helpline
- firstname.lastname@example.org (Gateway to mental health services in Texas)
- NAMI National Alliance of Mental Illness Helpline (800-950-6264)
- NAMI of Greater Houston (713-970-4419)
- Crisis Text Line. Texting HOME to 741741 connects you to trained volunteer crisis counselors who reply quickly and are available 24/7.
- Your primary care provider or pediatrician can provide a referral.