Resources on mental health services lay on a table. Paige Mueller/ The Free Press

Mental health and COVID-19: a focus on parenting

The mental health implications of COVID-19 may span all generations, including youth and children. To explore this impact and some helpful strategies for parents I looked to Vanessa Oleksow, a registered clinical counsellor with child and youth mental health, who shared the following commentary.

So many of the things that make our world feel safe and secure have become uncertain in the wake of the pandemic. Understandably, navigating these impacts can cause us to feel as though we are on an emotional rollercoaster. Our young people are riding alongside us, and they may not yet have the language or insight to effectively communicate how they are feeling or what they need to feel better. The result? Moodiness, fights, meltdowns, and other challenging behaviour. With this in mind, here are a few ideas for caregivers to help increase children’s sense of safety in these trying times, aiding them to ride the drops and loops of the rollercoaster without falling off the tracks.

Make the world consistent and predictable

Kids thrive on structure and routine in general, but during stressful times these concepts become even more valuable. When life is predictable, there is more room in the thinking part of the brain to deal with challenging situations in a regulated way because kids do not need to use mental energy to adapt to unexpected change. The things that comprise structure in a child’s world are practices like daily routine and family rituals, of course, but also adherence to household rules, respect for personal boundaries, and consistency in discipline.

Practice acceptance and validation

When we see our child in the throes of a difficult emotion it is reflexive to try and make things better. Switching into “fix it” mode is a common and understandable response, however it may unintentionally give the message that difficult emotions are unwelcome. Being with a child in their tough emotions without requiring that they feel better is a powerful form of emotional support. Kids are often able to work through emotions on their own when we support them to name the emotions they are experiencing and what might be giving rise to them. If you struggle to find the words to support kids with tough emotions, you could follow the following equation, subbing in the appropriate emotion and reasons for my examples in parentheses.

“I can understand why you would feel (frustrated with school), because (it is really difficult to learn by yourself at home) and (doing well in school is important to you). I am here for you, and we will figure this out together, okay?”

Let your child’s response guide you from there. At times, it will indeed be necessary to engage your child in problem solving, but if you lead with emotional support, your child’s brain is more likely to be regulated and ready to effectively engage in this task.

See the helpers, be the helpers

Work with your kids to identify the helping people in their lives, their communities, and beyond. This facilitates their understanding of the massive network of people who are working to keep people safe and well. Stressful times also offer an amazing opportunity for your kids to flex their creative and empathy muscles. Ask kids if they can think of anything they might like to do to help others. These need not be huge gestures. A video call to an isolated friend or a piece of art shared through a window are both generous gifts that promote a sense of joy and connection. Finding ways to contribute and help others during uncertain times is a valuable way to create a sense of control and contribution to a greater cause.

In addition to Vanessa’s suggestions, it is important to remember to be kind to yourself and recognize that our current world has shaken up our routines and what we know about parenting, working, and educating kids. Give yourself a break if the school lessons were more creative and real world some days. If you are not able to follow a preplanned schedule every day, your kids will be okay. There is growth and resiliency in all that we do, it just might look a little different right now, and that is okay.

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