Jen Miller

Jen Miller

When we celebrated our New Year’s resolutions for 2020, I don’t think any of us were prepared to add ‘get through a pandemic’ to that list.

Nevertheless, we are faced with immense challenges this year. We have been called upon to shelter-in-place, learn myriad new tech skills, adjust to work from home, and even stockpile toilet paper.

As parents, we are charged with holding our children’s safety and education in our hands. But never has it been so literal a task. With schools and many day care centers closed since early March, we’ve become primary educators for our children, as well.

As children, they were asked to stay put, engage in remote learning and not see their friends—and this all took place with only a few days’ notice. This kind of jarring flip to childrens’ routines has been, at the very least, a lot to ask of little tykes.

The mother of a four-year-old and an 18-month-old, let me tell you; I have never been tested as much as during these last few months.

As a professional mental health counselor, I have been asked to share my “words of wisdom” and often asked how I get through the day. And I have opened every conversation with the same adage: nobody is perfect!

I have flexed my own limits to the breaking point, and some days have not been so sunny. However, there are things we can do to keep from losing more hair than we already have!

Through these trying adjustments, we cannot neglect our mental health needs and the vast impact of COVID-19. You may be experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions. As these emotions continue to build up, they often can cause symptoms of anxiety, depression, despondency, grief, anger and so on. And kids soak up that same impact, as well. Here are a few things you can do to maintain and manage.

So how do we stay calm in the chaos?

Stay Busy: Creating a routine for your child(ren) will set a foundation of predictability and expectation for them. When schools first closed, many kids felt the kind of excitement of an extended snow day. And maybe you did, too, but from work! But after we resigned ourselves to the rinse-and-repeat of the lockdowns, we soon found that unstructured days could be daunting.

You can create a routine with a printed schedule on your fridge or paint a chalkboard wall and encourage kids to help fill in the day’s activities. This will help to provide you and your family with some certainty amidst the countless uncertainties facing our country and world right now.

Be Mindful: The concept of mindfulness is rather simple; pay attention to the present. We are so used to our daily grinds and making sure that our to-do lists are filled, we often get stuck either the past, wondering what we could have done, or the future, musing about what needs to be done. But, it is in the present moment, that we truly find our joy. For example, connecting to the conversation in front of you without distraction can enhance your overall enjoyment of that experience. When you begin to feel overwhelmed and your worries circle your mind, take a small break to do a sensory-based exercise. You can step outside for a small walk around the yard or implement a deep breathing exercise. You can place some fresh flowers in your home to provide a lovely scent — anything to activate one or more of your five senses will help to lower the intensity of negative symptoms like anxiety. The idea is to allow yourself to re-ground to the present moment and loosen the grip on the things you cannot control. Some exercises you can do with younger children include creating a calm corner where there are sensory items they can hold or listen to. You can also guide them through these Mindfulness exercises with you, taking a family meditation moment to deeply breathe together or go for a walk outside as a group.

Do as I do: Two of the most important values we can provide for kids is to teach by example and follow-through. If you ask them to take a break from their devices, take a break, too! If you ask them to wear a protective mask, wear one, too! We want to teach our kids to hold themselves accountable, so we must show them how we do that ourselves. This includes attending to your adult self-care and mental health needs. If children see us taking the time to meet our own needs, whether seeking a therapist’s support or reading a favorite book, we can teach them to do those things for themselves when they become adults. They will know and trust that it is okay to feel unstable and to ask for help.

Avoid media overload: We can all agree that a break from media is much needed. With floods of material coming in from all angles — social media, local news, cable, podcasts, and on and on — we want to provide a platform for our children through which they can be informed, but not feel overwhelmed. You can talk to youngsters about the health concerns and share with them the necessity for precautions, but try to keep instructions age-appropriate and allow kids time to just turn off the television or radio. Incorporate more interpersonal interactions with them. Go outside and enjoy a scavenger hunt, play board games, play dress up, color or paint a picture, cook a new recipe.

Connect with friends and your community: There is only so much within our own four walls that we can really enjoy, right? At some point, we all want to hit the door running and find a new scene to help ease the tension and monotony of sheltering in place. For children, socialization is incredibly important for development of their autonomy, independence, and personality. There are several video platforms for video chats available through which you can set up virtual play dates for your young ones. In fact, you could create a shared project for them to work on as a virtual group, like writing a story or building with Legos. Such projects can be done with a plan in place to share the finished product in person once the pandemic has ended. You can also teach tots how to write a letter and encourage them to be a pen pal with one of their classmates. Providing socialization and hope for a future gathering can supplement your kiddo’s interpersonal interactions. They need kid-to-kid time and assurance that all hope is not gone.

When we give, we foster intrinsic values of gratitude and compassion. Becoming involved in the community is another way to stay connected to people while also building in your child a sense of altruism. Some examples include activities like donating goods and food, volunteering, making homemade face masks, or cooking a meal for an elderly neighbor.

Ask for help: If you are ever feeling more overwhelmed than usual or are experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please reach out for help. You can contact your county’s local Mobile Crisis number or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also do a quick internet search for licensed counselors in your area. Many counselors are continuing to offer Telehealth (video platform) therapy sessions during the pandemic to maintain safety and allow easier access to care. Remember, your worries, feelings and fears are valid. Anything and everything are reasons enough to talk to a therapist.

Jen Miller is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC) practicing in the Triad. 

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