Family Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19
Families across the world are dealing with the devastating physical, social and economic effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. The early stages of a pandemic were certainly anxiety-provoking. And now, nearly two months into quarantine, we are adjusting to a new “normal”. Even still, feelings of fear, stress and sadness are normal during the pandemic.
For low-income families, these feelings are magnified. They may be experiencing a lack of resources (like food, shelter, reliable internet connection or money), uncertainty of future living situations or employment, an increased fear of immigration status and inability to access resources. Many children living in cities are unable to go outside because of unsafe neighborhoods or because the highly populated areas pose a risk of infection. Being confined to their homes is causing record levels of anxiety, fear, boredom, and signs of depression in children under these circumstances.
Children’s Bureau therapists are working with families to help combat these challenges. These are some of the most common concerns we’ve heard and the advice we give to all families who are struggling during this time.
What are children feeling?
Due to social distancing, many children have lost touch with their school friends and are feeling lonelier than ever. As we know with ourselves and many adults, the way we act does not always accurately reflect how we feel. This is true for children as well.
Our children are adept to what is going on in the world and you may have noticed that they are acting differently lately. These are a couple of ways your child is telling you what they are feeling and that they need to talk.
- Anxiety- It may seem to you like children “live in their own world” but many children express that they are constantly worried about their personal and/or their family’s well-being. This anxiety can present as irritability (short temperament), fidgeting, constantly starting arguments with siblings or difficulty sleeping (i.e. going to sleep, waking up during the night).
- Fear- A child’s fear may present as separation anxiety (becoming overly clingy with parents or siblings), a sudden inability to sleep through the night or expressing that they do not want to go back to school.
- Anger- This may be the easiest feeling to identify, but it is just as important as any other emotion. It can present as increased anger outburst (tantrums, hitting, crying for longer periods of time) or shutting down. Anger is typically accompanied by an underlying emotion (sadness, fear, loneliness, shame) so it is important to talk to your child about why they are angry and how can you help.
- Frustration- When children are frustrated, they may be more inclined to talk back, are more irritable (“snappier”), less obedient and are more rebellious.
How can I help my child?
Caregivers can help children by checking in and asking them open-ended questions such as, “How are you feeling today?”, “How can I support you?”, “How can I help you through this?”. It’s important to spend time with them that is free of distractions. If there are multiple children are in the home, try to spend time with each of them individually. This can be done in small increments (10-30 minutes or more). The easiest way to connect with them is to simply ask what they would like to do during their undivided time.
It is also important that children find ways to socialize with peers. Many kids are spending more time playing online games to stay connected. While this is perfectly healthy, it is important to closely monitor the content they are watching and stay informed about the friends they are connecting with online. Talk with children about what constitutes being a good and appropriate friend.
What are parents feeling?
Adults are experiencing increased anxiety, depression, stress, frustration, fear, anger and even happiness. It is completely normal for people’s feelings/moods to be fluctuating during this time. It is important to acknowledge that many caregivers in the U.S have either lost their job or had their work hours reduced. This puts a great amount of stress on caregivers who need to provide for their families.
How can I help myself?
As parents, we need to adequately take care of ourselves before we are equipped to help those who depend on us. It’s important for adults to seek their own mental health services, identify a support system and establish a self-care routine (working out, reading, writing, watching TV or setting aside alone time).
Without a proper self-care routine, caregivers may find themselves lashing out (yelling, hitting or name calling) on their children and family. Parents may find that they have less patience, feel more easily frustrated, irritable, alone, stressed or overwhelmed. All of these are valid and a normal response to the situation the world is facing, but ultimately, it is a parent’s job to hold themselves accountable and manage their feelings in a healthy way.
How can we help each other as a family?
Families can spend time with each other by having occasional game nights, movie nights, coloring or painting time and cooking together. But it is also okay for everyone in the family to have alone time. If possible, caregivers can work as a team. If one caregiver in the home is becoming frustrated, the other can step in to give the other break. In single parent homes, caregivers can pause and step away to take a deep breath (count to five) rather than reacting immediately to triggers.
Family members should identify what helps them calm down. It could be dancing, drawing, playing an instrument, going for a walk, writing, deep breathing, taking breaks throughout the day- it looks different for everyone. Then, you can put these activities into practice individually or together.
Our therapists help guide children and parents through various grounding techniques, such as breathing exercises for kids, through telehealth services. For a step-by-step guide, click here or visit our counseling for kids resource page to begin accessing our services.
How can we help others?
Communities can support each other in various ways. If you are financially able to, consider trading goods (food, water, households supplies) or picking up groceries for a single parent in your apartment building. Create a support system. Everyone is going through a period of adjustment and having similar reactions, so don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help yourself.
There are also hundreds of organizations, including Children’s Bureau who are providing financial assistance and emotional support. Check out our list of tools and resources for more information.
Written By: Emily Narvaez, MFT
Emily is a Mental Health Therapist at Children’s Bureau. She has a Master’s of Science in Counseling Psychology with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy from Mount St. Mary’s University. She is also a member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.