I’m not one to panic.
Ask my family or friends, and they can attest that I’m unflappable in most high-pressure situations.
My ability to remain calm and focused has enabled me to help so many young people struggling with anxiety and other mental health disorders.
But, if I can be completely transparent, the past few weeks have shook me. The uncertainty of living in this new COVID-19 reality is impossible to escape, and this new normal still feels surreal. I am reminded of other events in my life that left me waking up in the morning hoping it was all just a very bad dream.
I help my patients manage what often feels like the unmanageable, but this complete halt to life as we know it is overwhelming for most…maybe with the exception of Dr. Fauci.
Read on for ways you and your family can adjust to these trying times.
FINDING YOUR WAY AS A FAMILY.
As our government continues to get a handle on the pandemic, and we adjust to life as full-time social distance quarantiners, here are some practical ways you can connect with your kids and take advantage of all this newfound time together.
When in doubt, go outside.
My family and I have spent more time outdoors together than I can remember in recent history. My 8-year old daughter and I have hiked through wooded trails by our house. My 11-year old son and I have laced up our sneakers both before starting our day of virtual work and online school, and at night under cloudless starry skies. Our conversations range from a video game my son can’t wait to conquer and coronavirus concerns to my daughter’s theory that “Mother Nature must sure be mad at us for harming the environment.”
As a clinician, but a father first, these moments with my family outdoors (alongside the many sitdown meals, household projects, and even the occasional meltdowns, and I don’t just mean my kids!), have been a realization for me…
We’ll never have this opportunity again.
Aside from our full-time jobs, like so many families with active children fully invested in multiple sports and activities, our lives and schedules are packed. Rarely do we get a fraction of the time together as we have now.
While COVID-19 is daunting and uncertain, the silver lining to the pandemic is this – we have all been given an opportunity to reclaim what so often eludes us… TIME TOGETHER.
Monitor your news intake.
Adults and children should limit media consumption to less than one hour per day. Information overload, particularly as it pertains to widespread illness and death, leads to increased anxiety, stress, and depression.
While it’s great to be informed, it’s important to focus on facts rather than emotions, so regulate and make conscious choices about what your family is exposed to.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests, “Avoid watching, reading or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones.”
By now, kids are weeks into “homeschooling,” and adjusting to a much different life than they were used to even one month ago. Talk to them openly about this pandemic, and how it’s affected lives worldwide. Be age appropriate with the details, but answer and address their concerns as openly as possible.
Reiterate that it is not their job to stop or fix the virus, but that all the measures (i.e. handwashing, social distancing, etc.) your family is taking are geared at helping slow the spread and flatten the curve. This is a wonderful teaching moment about social responsibility, and how our small actions are helping the greater good.
In talking about the pandemic, also remind your children that the adults in their life are protecting them, and that we have the very best doctors, nurses, and scientists working hard to find ways to solve the problem.
Hold space for your child’s emotions…and yours too.
When the world and our future feels uncertain, showing up and being there for our kids is the best thing we can do. Whether it’s walks outside or check-ins at lunchtime, make opportunities for your kids to talk. You’ll find that when you create moments for them to open up, you won’t have to force them to talk.
Validate your kids’ emotions, but don’t immediately jump to provide alternate information or problem solve. For example, “I would feel awful too if I felt I was left out of a group-chat.” Though you may need to validate your child several times, you’ll find that once strong emotions dissipate, they will be much more open to receiving alternate perspectives and recommendations.
We are all feeling moments of intense uncertainty, grief, and loneliness, and if there was ever a perfect time for your children to learn resilience, it’s now. As the source of comfort and stability in your child’s life, you provide security in the context of chaos. This means encouraging them to face and feel all the emotions stirred up by this pandemic, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.
Fred Rogers aka Mr. Rogers reminds us that “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” Let your child know that their feelings are always valid and safe with you, and that especially in difficult moments, we must be compassionate with ourselves and others.
Maintain structure & your normal routines.
In the absence of external uncertainty, we must look for ways to structure ourselves and keep order in our lives. While life has clearly changed, it’s imperative to stick to your household routine. Start with what your schedule was, and go from there, no need to reinvent the wheel. Weekdays should look like weekdays, weekends like weekends.
For example, during the week at 8:30am every day, you’ll find my wife and I walking with the kids and dog to the bus stop, even though there will be no bus. So immersed in what feels like our usual, pre-pandemic routine, we’ve even forgotten a few times that the bus is not coming (nice reprieve!). This is also a much better use of our time than watching the often overwhelming news reports. It also means me getting dressed in a suit like I do each clinic day, which is a cue to the kids that “Dad’s going to work to see patients.”
Regardless of all the outside challenges and complexities brought on by COVID-19, these small things provide a sense of normalcy for children.
And, while your kids’ school environment has certainly changed, you can still create structure around this new way of learning. Designate a comfortable space in your home for their homeschooling, complete with the daily schedule posted on the wall, and even a special bin or area to put personal items, just like they have at school.
Connections are more important than ever.
Yes, we’re all social distancing, but we can still have quality, meaningful interactions with those closest to us. Making it a priority for you and your family to engage with others will help normalize this very abnormal experience.
Technology allows us to stay easily connected with family and friends via Zoom, Facetime, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc. Take this time to reconnect with old friends or family you may have lost touch with.
Particularly in this unprecedented moment, it is these connections that will sustain us through the most difficult times now and later.
Focus on improving relationships within the home.
While engaging with others outside our home is important, even more so is taking the time to strengthen our connections at home.
These moments at home have given me a reminder to truly see and appreciate my family. We are not overly spiritual, but I’ve noticed at bedtime that my daughter has taken to praying on her own. I’ve been so moved that her prayers haven’t been for her or us, but in her words, “For everyone who is suffering, that they will know that we are in this together, and we’re gonna be ok.”
As I said at the beginning of this post, we’ll never have an opportunity like this again. While you’re likely juggling an enormous number of tasks at home, take advantage of this extra time together to engage and connect. Get your kids involved in the cooking for family meals. Get outside and bask in Mother Nature. Introduce your kids to movies you loved growing up. Truly enjoy what they bring to the world.
We have been given the gift of unexpected extra time together, so embrace it. Cherish it. Find the joy no matter how frenetic or messy it may feel.
Create a plan and include your kids on projects that will make all of your lives better once the pandemic is over.
It’s no coincidence that spring cleaning and preparing our homes for warmer weather is here. My wife has emptied out the kids drawers and closets, and now has bags upon bags to donate. A good friend is finally cleaning out his basement to transform it into a space for his kids to hang out. While walking with my kids to the bus stop today (sticking to our morning routine of course!), I saw that our neighbors are replacing their deck.
What you spend your time doing now will pay dividends later. These tasks can help you be more mindful, focusing on the here and now – such a good remedy for existential crises. Additionally, these tasks embrace the future and give you something to look forward to once the pandemic is past us.
Depending on their age, include your kids on these projects. Working together on a common goal will be therapeutic for your entire family, and serve as a place for meaningful connection and an invaluable shared experience.
BE MINDFUL OF EVERYONE’S MENTAL HEALTH.
Between worry and fear about health, safety, finances, and the future, this is probably the most stressful situation that we will face in our lifetime.
That said, I can’t stress enough the importance of mental health for all members of the family.
If your child is prone to excessive worry or OCD-like tendencies, these complex times will be even harder for them to navigate. If your child is exhibiting signs of increased anxiety or you’re worried about particular behaviors, I encourage you to reach out and schedule a complimentary 15-30 minute phone consultation. It’s difficult to readily identify emerging mental health issues, but getting immediate support from a professional is critical.
To meet the needs of new and existing patients and families, I’m offering virtual evaluations and appointments. Most research shows that early identification, intervention and treatment yield the best short and long term outcomes. By addressing early we can hopefully avoid medications and/or higher levels of care.
My main treatment modality is Brief Transdiagnostic Parent Training, which can be used by any parent to intervene at the environmental level to promote and maintain a child’s mental health. In just six treatment sessions, you can immediately encourage and reinforce positive behaviors and improved skills in your child.
MY PARTING THOUGHTS.
I’ve always said that I’ve learned 10 times more from every patient and family I’ve treated than they have learned from me. I’d put any of my patients up against anyone, as they’ve faced early challenges and worked so hard to overcome them. Through this pandemic, I continue to be humbled by the incredible resilience of those who have worked so hard to get well, and I’m inspired by how they are handling disappointment, loss, uncertainty, etc. Once again, my patients have taught me new and lasting life lessons.
We are living in unprecedented times, but with communication, compassion, and of course, love, you and your family can thrive in this new normal.
Wishing you and your families safe and healthy times ahead. And remember, if you’re ever feeling lost or overwhelmed, sometimes all it takes to regain perspective is a walk to the bus stop.