Parents: It’s Our Job to Bolster and Protect the Mental Health of Our Children

Especially now, when their world has been turned upside down It wasn’t until my daughter sat silently in the backseat…

Especially now, when their world has been turned upside down

It wasn’t until my daughter sat silently in the backseat of the car with tears streaming down her face that I realized she was as anxious and overwhelmed by today’s new world as we are. As an educator, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but truth be told, I haven’t been mindful of the news she’s overhearing and the conversations we adults have been having within her earshot.

As we drove away from her dad’s house this morning, I watched her in the rear view mirror. The tears gathered at the rim of her lower lid before dripping down her rosy cheeks.

“Sweet pea, how can I help you today?” I asked, still unsure of what was upsetting her.

She turned her body toward the window, looking absently at the world outside, trying to avoid showing me her tear-streaked face.

“Well, when you’re ready to talk, I am here for you,” I said, reaching my hand back to squeeze her knee.

I wasn’t sure if she was upset about leaving her dad’s, knowing she wasn’t going back for a week – and if we get thrown into mandatory lock down, maybe longer. Maybe she just forgot something at her dad’s and she knew this mom wasn’t going back to get it.

It could be anything.

And then she asked, “Mama, I heard the news. How does the coronavirus compare to SARS or the other ‘s’ flu?”

My heart dropped. This tiny, innocent 7-year-old was contemplating the big questions, wondering why her world is being turned upside down.

We spoke about the differences between the different outbreaks and I was surprised at the amount of knowledge N had as a 7-year-old about them. She knew that the seasonal flu, in terms of number of bodies, has been more fatal than the coronavirus. She knew that some people weren’t heeding warnings and continued to be with large groups of people. And she knew that our government hasn’t been handling the outbreak very efficiently.

Of course, she didn’t use the large words, but she is educated about the current state of affairs – and she is struggling with how to make sense of it all.

“Will daddy get sick?” she asked with an audible lump in her throat.

See, her daddy has Type-1 Diabetes. He’s considered higher risk than I am, and she knows it.

“No, sweet pea. Daddy isn’t going to get sick because he is practicing social distancing,” I responded.

“What about Tyler?” she asked, knowing he has asthma and suffers from chronic bronchitis regularly.

“No, babe. We are being extra careful too.”

My little girl wasn’t crying because she left a stuffed animal behind at her daddy’s house. She wasn’t crying because she was sad to leave her daddy.

She was crying because she has a heart full of love and compassion. She’s my empath, and she is genuinely overwhelmed and scared, concerned that her world – her dad and step-dad – will come crashing down.

And it got me thinking of all of the ways I may have contributed to her fears. Because of Tyler’s and Sean’s (N’s dad) higher risk of complications from the coronavirus, I have been pretty demanding about the restrictions we are placing on ourselves as a family – both at our home and at Sean’s. Before government officials even called for strict social distancing, we’ve stayed out of crowded places and away from parks, restaurants, movies, and shopping centers. We wash our hands religiously and I cleaned the house the way only a former member of the military would clean.

And we talk about the current events constantly.

Today, I realized that I need to make a few changes, and parents, I implore you to take a look at your own habits right now, as well.

Right now, many schools have opted to take this week and next as their spring break, giving the teachers more time to train and plan for distance learning. Most kids, right now, don’t understand the gravity of the situation. Right now, many kids are thinking, “Cool! We get an extra week of spring break!” But as they start to spend more and more time at home with strict restrictions on seeing their friends or leaving the house, reality will start to set in. When that does, we, as parents, need to be there to assure them, to love them louder, and to show them that we will be OK.

This is not normal. Their childhood has been turned upside down. Where there was once carefree giggles and hugs, we find quiet kids who are looking to us for comfort. We have to be the voices of comfort, and if that means we have to limit our exposure to the news and updates, then that is what we have to do.

Here are a few tips to help your children through the next few weeks (dare I say months):

Maintain a Routine

I’ve seen many “homeschooling” schedules floating around the Internet, and while many are pushing back, saying those are unrealistic expectations, it is really important for us to maintain a routine for our children. You don’t have to be a drill sergeant about it, but make sure your children – especially teenagers – are getting up a normal time and going to bed at consistent times. This will help them maintain healthy sleep habits.

Have consistent meal times.

And be sure to schedule “down time” – time when the kids can each retreat to their room and have some time alone. This is important for their well-being.

Incorporate Learning

Many schools are sending out assignments and continuing education through distance learning. Some parents are freaking out about this – myself included. Something to keep in mind about this is that teachers are going to be lenient about coursework (or they should be). If the work is too much for your child, scale it back. Let them work at their own pace through the work. And if you don’t understand something enough to help your child, encourage them to reach out to a friend, email the teacher, or find one of your own friends who can help.

And if your child’s school is not sending out work yet, there are plenty of online resources (here and here) available for fun activities and games. But keep in mind – learning doesn’t have to be solely schoolwork. There are plenty of things that we can teach our kids that don’t involve worksheets or complex lesson plans.

Teach your child how to cook your favorite dessert. Help your child learn a new skill or hobby. Teach your child your favorite childhood outdoor games. There is plenty that we can be teaching our kids that don’t require the use of pencils and paper.

Turn off the TV

Don’t watch the news in front of your kids. They don’t need to hear it. If you want to talk to your kids about what is going on in the world, there are plenty of resources. Your children should be getting the news of the world from you – free from any fear mongering or political banter designed to rile us up.

And as tempting as it is to plop down for an entire day in front of the television, try to avoid it. It may seem helpful in the beginning, but in the long run, you will face greater challenges when you try to pry them away from the TV. But, that being said ….

Allow Screen Time

Have designated times that your child can be on their phone or in front of the TV. There is a balance. What is that balance? Only you know that because it depends on your child. Allow them to connect with their friends on a video game for a little while or watch an episode or two of their favorite TV show. But be smart about how much time you’re allowing your child to veg out in front of a screen. Please.

Schedule Virtual Play Dates

Or allow your older children to FaceTime with their friends. Just because we are social distancing doesn’t mean we have to stop connecting with others. This is the perfect time to make those phone calls to friends who we never get to talk with because we just don’t have time. Call up a parent of your child’s best friend and ask if you can set up a Zoom play date. It will give you a break from entertaining for a little while, and your child will be delighted to build LEGOS with a friend from their own homes.

Check in With Their Mental Health

This is particularly important for our children. Give them the space to ask questions, and be honest with your answers. When we are living in a state of constant fear and stress as we are right now, it can take it’s toll. Be mindful of this. If your child is acting out, do your best to refrain from punishment. They are acting out because something is going on. Have an open line of communication. Now is the time to work on building those communication skills between everyone in the home.

Get out of the Pajamas

It’s tempting – as I write while in my pajamas – to be in your pajamas all day long. I am not suggesting that you have your child wear formal wear all day long, but encourage them to change from their pajamas. One of the all-girl private schools in our area suggested to the girls: Wear an outfit every day that makes you feel confident and beautiful. This is an important part of boosting your mental health, and it goes for adults too. Trust me – I am one of those people who immediately put on pajamas when I return home from work every day. The allure is real. It is a struggle every morning to get myself out of my pajamas knowing I have nowhere to be. But the boost to my mental state is astounding. Try it, and encourage your kids to do the same.

And parents, hang in there. This, too, will pass. We don’t know when, but sooner or later, the kids will return to school and play dates. The neighborhood parks will be full of laughter and squeals of playing kids again. But for now, we are their source of comfort, make-believe, play, and love. Make it count.

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What suggestions do you have for fellow parents about helping their children through these unprecedented times?

Other posts you may be interested in:

Overcoming Anxiety

Let Children be Children

Accepting Vulnerability


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