Some time has passed since COVID-19 initially impacted our lives, lessening some of our early worries about the pandemic. As we continue to navigate drastic changes, my concerns these days turn mostly to my children and other children around me.
My kids worry about how they will stay connected with the friends they saw daily before COVID-19. They ask me questions I can’t answer with any certainty. This exacerbates my own feelings of anxiety about how we’ll will cope as fall continues.
Recently, my 6-year-old had a meltdown and gave me a list of everything that was wrong. On his list? He and his friend (with whom he is on Zoom daily) couldn’t decide which games to play, he doesn’t think his 11-year-old sister likes him and the year 2020 has, in his mind, “ruined everything.”
Life is very different now, and many of us are not OK with it. How do we go forward knowing this while caring for our kids’ well-being and our own?
I don’t have all the answers. Like many of you, I am navigating these challenges daily. What I do know is that these times have forced me to be more diligent, creative and mindful when it comes to my own and my family’s mental health. Some days, I am better at this than others. However, I know that if I pay attention to how we are all doing in terms of our mental health, we will fare much better at coping with the daily changes (and ripples) as they come.
Here are some ways to help protect you and your family’s mental health this school year:
Prioritize mental health (and health in general). Proactively make sure that you and your kids are getting regular sleep, exercise and spending time in nature when possible. Limit intake of news or other media that can be disturbing or stressful, especially to young children. Be mindful of what is on in the background throughout your day. Ask your children how they are feeling and listen without judgment. Check in with yourself about how you are feeling, too.
Be flexible when challenges arise. We are navigating new routines, differing start dates, changing circumstances and new requirements. It will take us time to adjust to these changes, and we may have feelings about them. It’s OK if things don’t go as planned or as smoothly as you had hoped as the school year got underway. We are learning as we go. Learning what isn’t working is just as important as learning what does work for your family.
Keep scheduling family time and rituals. These can be shared meals (like Taco Tuesday in ours), walks, game time or weekly movie nights. These regular rituals can add a sense of structure and routine and give you time to connect as a family. Don’t have a ritual? Create one and stick to it (even if your kids grumble at first).
Avoid comparisons. What works for your family may not work for others, and vice versa. Try to avoid comparing yourself to others. Try to avoid comparing your family’s coping strategies to how other families may be handling this time. The benchmark should be doing what helps to keep you and your family well.
Model healthy coping (and reaching out for help). Share with your family mindfulness activities or other things that work for you, and introduce them to videos, books or other information to help them cope with their stress. Keep in contact with your support network and encourage them to do the same with theirs. Reinforce the message that there is always help available to the entire family (including professional help) if they feel they are not managing well.
While back to school meant something different for all of us this year, we can take steps to support our families and each other as we navigate these changes. If you are struggling or worried about the mental health of someone you love, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or the Crisis Text Line (text TALK to 741741) for guidance.
Doreen Marshall, Ph.D., is vice president of mission engagement for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This article originally appeared on the blog of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website, where you can learn more about suicide and mental health.