This post was written by Sara Rattigan, Communications Director of the MGH Clay Center, and originally appeared on the Clay Center website.
The longer families are homebound due to COVID-19, the greater the concerns about child, teen, and parent mental health. We are struggling to cope with challenges never dreamed of, all while feeling more isolated from those we’d typically turn to for support. Not knowing when the pandemic will end, many families want to know what they can do to manage the day-to-day at home, and support the long-term emotional health of their kids.
Fortunately, in this time of uncertainty, there are some things we do know about supporting child emotional development. Below is advice that experts from each the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have shared with various media outlets. Click on the links within each tip for more detailed guidance in the original story.
- Take care of yourself. It may feel impossible, but TRY.
This is probably the hardest and most important thing to do. You cannot take care of your kids or loved ones if you don’t tend to your own needs. Think about what you personally need to get by right now, and make a plan to prioritize that. For some, lack of sleep is debilitating, so sleep needs to be the number one priority. Others depend on some dedicated time alone each day, away from everyone else. And don’t forget about your mindset – not holding yourself to the same standards as pre-COVID or mentally giving yourself permission to make mistakes could be an important part of self-care. “Maybe you didn’t get it right, but it was good enough at the time. This is a novel virus, and these are novel times,” says MGH Clay Center executive director Dr. Gene Beresin. Finally, if you have a partner or other adult member of the household, talk about the importance of taking care of yourselves, and do your best to support each other in prioritizing what you each need.
Tips from The Boston Globe’s In the Family Way
- Ask your child what’s hard for them.
As a parent, you likely have your own concerns about your child’s emotional health. But don’t forget to ask them what they are worried or frustrated about. Their answer may be different than you think. Do they miss going out with their friends? Are they afraid of falling behind in class? Are they bored? Do they feel like they have no privacy? Do they have Zoom fatigue, or feel anxious about being on video during remote learning? “The more information you can get about what’s happening, the better. Talk to your kids about friendships, about what they’re expecting, about what they’re nervous about. All of these things can make what’s unclear a little bit clearer, which is going to help anxiety,” says Dr. Ellen Braaten of the MGH Learning and Emotional Assessment Program. If you know what’s impacting your child, from their point of view, you’ll have a place to start in supporting them.
Tips from NBC Nightly News, WCVB Boston Channel 5, and Understood
- Use positive messages in conversations at home.
Especially now, with many families home together more than ever before, what you say and model in conversations can have a big impact on your child’s short- and long-term emotional health. “If kids are overhearing anything, they’re hearing how someone interacts with someone else,” says Dr. J. Stuart Ablon, director of Think: Kids at MGH. Be mindful of what you do (and don’t) say in conversations your child or teen might overhear, even if you don’t think they’re around. Everything from framing political commentary in a positive way, to sharing your own personal stories about managing relationships, says Dr. Beresin, can help to support your child’s well-being.
Tips from Fatherly
- Approach school this year with a collaborative attitude.
There are going to be continued struggles and stresses ahead, whether your child is remote learning, in-person learning, hybrid learning, or going back and forth between any of these. Stay up to date on what’s going on in your school district, as best you can. And when you advocate for your child’s needs, try to assume that everyone is frustrated right now and trying their absolute hardest – we all need kindness and understanding right now. “Look at this as a very collaborative process, knowing that [teachers] are struggling too, and we’re all in this together,” says Dr. Braaten. “You don’t want to start in on this with, ‘I’m up for a fight.’ It may get there, but it’s better to not start with that.” And when it comes to your kids, especially adolescents, remember to keep in mind the impact of everything they are missing social-emotionally, beyond the academics. “Have a lot of generosity and grace with your middle-schoolers and high-schoolers,” says Dr. Elizabeth Pinsky of MassGeneral Hospital for Children.
Tips from Woman’s Day and The Washington Post
- Monitor your child for gaps in development.
“The great thing about the brain is plasticity. We have the ability to recapture experiences that we had some gaps in… It’s a matter of parents and teachers and tutors and coaches and older siblings and needing to know what needs monitoring,” says Dr. Beresin. While kids are often more resilient and adaptable than we realize, there are also real concerns about loss in social-emotional and academic development with continued remote learning, especially for schoolchildren who were already at a disadvantage. You know your child best. Monitor your child for gaps in learning, socialization, and relationships, and involve other adults in doing the same. This way, you can do your best to supplement what you can now, at home, and will know what areas of development may need the most attention down the road.
Tips from Fatherly and Mornings on Canada Talks
- Get creative about social-emotional support.
“The social-emotional aspects of learning are quite critical, not just for elementary school kids but for kids of all developmental levels – pre-school, school-age, high school kids, even college students. It’s a critical part of education,” says Dr. Beresin. Parents will need to be adaptive, creative, and flexible when it comes to exploring ways to connect socially – digitally, in-person physically distanced and with masks, with family, etc. Also, find out what is most important to your child about how they socialize with friends and peers. For example, some children or teens may actually prefer a video chat or phone call over physically distancing with masks on. For others, feeling they have privacy to connect with friends may be important, whether it’s in person, or video or text message.
Tips from Morning on Canada Talks
- Get creative about hugs and physical distancing.
“Human beings need social contact,” says Dr. Beresin, and something as simple as a mutual hug can go a long way to support one’s mood. But in the middle of a pandemic, giving and getting a hug is a lot more complicated. Your household family may or may not be huggers, but if you are, don’t let the stress of the pandemic make you forget about the power of human contact. You all might need an extra hug right now – younger kids, especially, but not excluding teens. When it comes to others outside of the household, you may feel it’s appropriate to take a harm reduction approach and seriously assess and plan out the safety of any hugs with others. But there may also be other ways to feel close to loved ones and friends that you see but cannot touch, like sharing memories or sharing an experience, even if you can’t physically connect – you have to get creative.
Tips from Harvard Health
- Act on any mental health concerns.
Finally, remember: It’s okay to not be okay. It is part of being human to go through mental health challenges when faced with ongoing, overwhelming events. This is why we have entire clinical fields devoted to mental health – so that we know of ways to help when things are not okay. As a parent, you know your child best.
If you have concerns about their mental, emotional, or behavioral health:
- Know how to recognize signs of a mental health issue. We all have a role in promoting good mental health. A key role for parents and family members is being aware of the warning signs for mental health concerns, including any notable changes for in your preschooler, grade schooler, teenager, or young adult.
- Know that your pediatrician is a first line of support. If you notice changes in your child or teen’s typical behavior that concern you, reach out to your pediatrician or primary care doctor. They are a good place to start in talking through your concerns and thinking about whether any next steps are needed.
- Know that there are mental health services out there. Yes, navigating the system can be hard. But there are mental health services available. For those with access to a reliable internet connection, teletherapy services are more available than in the past due to communities across the country being in lockdown. In addition to starting with your pediatrician or primary care doctor, here are ideas on Where to Find Help for Your Child from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and on Choosing a Provider from Mental Health America.
- Know that there are support groups out there. There are support groups for those struggling with specific disorders, and there is support for parents and other family members who have a loved one that is struggling.
Tips from Woman’s Day, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Project TEACH
This is an extraordinary time, with no absolute answers, and we families are working through both similar and unique challenges. But in this time of isolation and uncertainty, remember that you are not alone, that there are things in your power to help your children and teens at home, and that there is support out there for you and your family, when you need it.