By Hollie Gomez, MSW, LCSW, School Social Worker
Mental Health is a term those of us in the profession are used to throwing around. Mental Health is the foundation for what we are trying to achieve with the work that we do. For others, the term “Mental Health” may seem unfamiliar or a bit too technical and cold to describe or categorize ourselves. Your loved ones may not call on the phone and ask “how was your mental health today?”. Nonetheless, that is the critical question right now, amidst the COVID-19 Global Pandemic we are all facing.
Mental Health refers to our cognitive, behavioral, and emotional well-being. How we think and feel in response to stress impacts how we cope, or act. We can cope well or not so well. We can fluctuate on a continuum of healthy to not-so-healthy to downright bad coping. As humans, we all experience problems and we are all on a journey of learning how to cope well as consistently as possible, despite our circumstances and differences. Struggles in mental affect all of us at one point or another. Basically, we are all in this together! It is possible for everyone to achieve better mental health and parents can support good mental health at home in both ourselves and our children.
If you are like me, one day you had a routine and were managing life’s challenges and suddenly life changed. As a parent and a school employee, I was faced in the course of a few days with being ordered to shelter-in-place and work from home, as well as facilitate what I would call a robust eLearning curriculum for my two elementary aged children. At this point, my family boarded the Struggle Bus as we call it. The Urban Dictionary defines “Struggle Bus” as a challenging situation or experience and I think now is as good of a time as any to employ the terminology! As a School Social Worker, I am keenly aware of how families face challenges in many different ways, but there are several common themes I have noted as I have talked with families adjusting to a new way of doing life.
First off, I’d like to note that in times of crisis, our feelings have a tendency to become bigger. We may notice we are easily agitated, frustrated, and overwhelmed and our interactions with our family members may be shorter and conflictual. It is important to remember that just as we are struggling with an array of emotions, our children are as well. Young children need you to help them name their feelings. What we typically may call “misbehavior” or “disrespect” may really be poor coping to feelings of fear, confusion, loneliness, grief from missing friends and teachers, being overwhelmed by all the change and new demands, or just plain boredom! Parents can have conversations with children about what they are feeling and offer healthier ways of dealing with those feelings, being clear about behavioral expectations. We also have learned as parents about the relationship between tears and tantrums and food and sleep. We never really outgrow this. Nothing helps ease big feelings like a nutritious snack or a nap. I recommend snacks and naps for adults and children!
Secondly, I’d like to note that a huge part of what makes our children feel safe and secure is STRUCTURE! There are a few simple ways we can incorporate structure back into our kids’ lives. If your children are home with you, one idea is to have your child wake up in the morning at the same time each day, get dressed and make up their sleeping space. Making a bed starts the day with one job well done and can motivate them to move onto the next task. Also, setting up a consistent work space with items they will need and getting started on time will set the expectation that learning is the task at hand. Keep breaks, snacks and meal times at the same time each day and protect your “me-time” by establishing a consistent bedtime routine. If your children are with caretakers, discuss the plan and need for a structured daily routine ahead of time. With so much we cannot predict right now, if our children know what “comes next” in the day they will feel more secure.
Thirdly, let’s talk about something a bit more fun. Right now, what children crave is to be a child! We only get one childhood and we all want our children to look back and remember their childhood as a positive experience. One way we can achieve this goal is to be “memory crafters”. Crafting memories means sprinkling a bit of fun and humor into each day. Memory crafting does not need to cost a dime! Some of our favorite activities are drawing superheroes and giving them a story, gardening or pulling weeds, lip-synch battles, game nights, taking walks/bike rides, baking cookies, or having a movie night complete with popcorn and lights out. We also like to “phone a friend or family member” to help stay connected or play on-line games with friends. I’ve heard about friends having backyard camp-outs, or spending time together giving back in some way like sewing masks together. Whatever your children enjoy doing with you…make some time for it if at all possible! Just 15 minutes can do the trick. These memories may even be some of the best times your child will remember.
Also, I’d like to talk about modeling. Our children look to us and other adults to decide how they want to act and who they want to be in life. Right now, in the midst of this crisis we have a great opportunity to teach our children how to “do challenges right”. People with good mental health have learned what I call the secret to joy and it is simply gratitude! Thinking about gratitude in the midst of so much loss may seem strange; however, when we spend time talking about what we do have instead of what we don’t, we are actually training our brains to be more content. Scientifically, our brains are creating new neural pathways and a lot of research exists if you want to delve further.
We can also model acceptance, or the idea of giving up control over what we can’t change and focusing instead on what we can. For example, “I can fill out this job application, I can apply for these benefits, I can contact my bank to discuss a plan, I can pick up mobile meals from the bus stop, I can disinfect these door handles, I can wear a mask, I can contact my child’s school and ask for help”. When we ask for help, we are giving our children permission to do the same! It’s important to remember that when we allow others to help us, they are receiving a blessing too! The old adage is true! It is better to give than receive and we don’t want to” rob others of their blessing” in being able to help or give.
Another important consideration is how much media exposure we have. Some professionals recommend picking one or two trusted media sites or sources and allowing two times a day where you allow yourself to “watch the news”. We also can limit what media we expose our children to, noting that a lot of information is not developmentally appropriate for our younger children. We can ask our children what they know and how they feel about the information they share. We can dispel wrong information and make sure they have a few simple facts about why life is so different right now. By answering our children’s questions with reassuring messages of how we are keeping them safe, we can help keep anxieties at bay.
Life is definitely full of peaks and valleys. Often times it is in the valleys where we develop character, use our talents, and create bonds with one another. The valleys also help us evaluate our priorities and occasionally force our hand in making changes or decisions we have been considering for a long time. The valleys show us what it’s like to experience different types of hardship so we can have empathy for others. They provide us opportunities to help others. They teach us how to cope and to pay attention to our own mental health. I encourage you to think about other ways you can support mental health at home and share your ideas with others! Remember, we are all riding the Struggle Bus right now, but we can help each other get off at the next stop!