We are all aware that it has been a challenging two years due to the impact of COVID-19 and all the ripple effects that emerged from it. One of the biggest changes has been the increase in mental health challenges for many people across the globe, including children. Thus, according to the UK's children's society, 1 in 6 children aged 5-16 are likely to have a mental health problem. With 17 to 22-year-old women said to be at higher risk of developing a mental health problem.
With their lives being turned upside down by shifts to home learning, no longer being able to see their friends, losing loved ones and all the anxiety that comes with COVID health protocols like wearing masks, it has led to compounded stress that they were never equipped to deal with. So it's important to think about some of the ways we can support them through this time. This is pivotal because giving them the skills they need to cope better and manage their wellbeing will help them to become well-adjusted adults in the future as well. It’s strategies they can utilise even long after COVID has passed.
1. Take care of your own wellbeing
It may be cliche, but leading by example is very important to form the foundation of a healthy relationship between parents and their children. According to developmental psychologists, children are observant, so they easily absorb, learn and imitate the behaviours that they see around them from parents, caregivers and the media they consume. Therefore, putting your own well-being first should be the priority, because mentally and physically healthy parents are best placed to care for and support their children’s mental health. They tend to do as we do, not what we say.
Additional studies have found that children raised by parents with unmanaged anxiety disorder are at increased risk for anxiety. This can be mitigated by modelling positive and encouraging behaviour that empowers children to deal with their own challenges better. Demonstrate consistency. And do what you say.
2. Create a trusting and open environment that encourages dialogue
You need to build a trusting relationship with your kids so they can feel free and safe to open up to you when something is going on with them. Trust is the cornerstone to an engaged and positive relationship with your kids because it teaches them skills they need to move about in the world - thereby determining whether they can trust others in the future, whether they will open themselves up to love or to being loved, how they deal with and express complex emotions and cope with stressful situations, and it can shape their perception of the world as either a secure or unsafe place.
This can only happen when you’ve created a safe environment and have built an open, two-way relationship with them. Assure them that they are not alone nor an anomaly in how they are feeling by also speaking honestly when you’re struggling with your own wellbeing (always keep it age-appropriate*).
This will also enable you to really know your child well so that you can be alert to any new behavioural changes and you can address them as and when they come up. Watch out for anxiety triggered by re-integration when they return to school, or a show of social anxiety when they meet new people or go to a new place, or if they show a loss of interest in their favourite things, they show sudden signs of unresponsiveness, or if they seem sad or moody over an extended amount of time. Be attentive to their emotional needs and take action if you feel they are acting out of the norm from how they usually behave.
3. Establish a routine for your kids and family
Whether intentional or not, most people have a daily routine. So it's important to set up a routine for your children as well so that they can have some level of predictability and control over their lives and daily activities. With some research suggesting that routine might also give children a feeling of family stability more than those who experience activities and routines at random, this is said to reduce feelings of anxiety that may occur during times of big life changes like divorce and potentially a pandemic.
A structure can build confidence and provide the security they need during a time of crisis. Try to establish regular activities like consistent bedtime and mealtimes. Here are guidelines to keep in mind when establishing a schedule and routine for your children:
- If they are old enough, involve them in creating the schedule so they buy into it more easily. Get their opinion on some of the activities they want to include in their schedule.
- Simplicity is always best, don't overcomplicate it because this could make it hard to implement.
- Make sure not to change the schedule too much daily, consistency is key here.
- Always go through the schedule daily with your kids so they know how their day will go.
- Leave room for flexibility, just in case something comes up during the day. This itself is a life skill kids need to learn in life, knowing that things can change so they need to adjust.
Schedules empower your kids to also have a sense of accomplishment, they get to tick things off throughout the day as they complete tasks. But more than anything, they can watch you model this behaviour as you help them achieve their own goals while you also complete the ones on your own schedule.
4. Empower them with tools to manage stressful situations
There are different ways you can do this, firstly, it's important to teach and encourage them to speak about how they feel instead of throwing stuff or acting out. This is the kind of behaviour you can model as a parent by being emotionally expressive when you’re feeling frustrated or going through something, instead of internalising your emotions or resorting to drinking or other unhealthy habits.
Make sure they understand that dealing with conflict and stressful situations is a normal part of life. You can teach them coping strategies like journaling that they can use to process what they are feeling.
Building their self-esteem is important for their self-worth, how they perceive themselves and how they interact with others. You can build their self-esteem by:
- Encouraging your kids through positive reinforcement.
- Empowering them to make their own decisions so they can trust themselves and grow into more independent adults.
- Encourage them to do more of the things they are good at.
- Listen when they speak and respect their feelings.
- Allow them to take ownership of certain things, you can achieve this by giving them chores they can run with and lead. Doing this can give them a sense of responsibility.
- Teach them that setbacks are learning experiences, instead of treating them as crushing defeat that reflects their value or lack thereof.
- Encourage talking through things so they learn to manage their own emotions.
This can also include seeking professional help if you feel you’re not properly equipped to help them deal with some of the mental health challenges that they might be facing, especially if your child appears to be more distressed than usual. Assure them that there is no shame in what they are feeling and asking for help when they need it.
6. Set time aside to do things together
Families that do things together create an enabling environment to bond and to get to know each other as a family. This is very important now more than ever, especially since being home more often can delude many of us into thinking we are already spending way more time together. Even though this might be true, quality time is more important than quantity of time.
Setting aside family time is about doing something fun and social together to de-stress together and activities that break the family out of its usual routine. Choose activities that enable bonding and stimulate their mental and physical health, like setting up a family game night, taking walks, cooking and baking together. It's important to schedule this time for family fun and well-being because it's easy to push it aside as more important life pressures like work get in the way. Kids need this to give them a sense of normality, especially if they still aren’t able to engage in face to face activities with their friends or other people outside the home.
What are some benefits of doing this:
- This can improve their social skills - since many have been spending more time in front of the screen, it's necessary to enjoy face to face time with your kids.
- Encourage more creativity, if you indulge in games that enable problem-solving.
- Improve their self-esteem, especially if you’re completing tasks and activities together as a family.
- Creating memories together is also crucial, remember that they won’t be young forever.
- More importantly, they will know they are loved and cared for when you make time for them.
But more than anything, make sure that the entire household is in a mentally and physically balanced state so that you can have a healthy home environment that enables everyone to thrive.