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Parents, here are 5 tips to help safeguard your family’s mental health right now

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Lockdown with your kids is a challenge, but these strategies will help you all get through it.

Lockdown with kids is a whole different ballgame from lockdown without them. While friends without kids are posting on social media about taking up new hobbies and crafting gourmet recipes, parents of little ones might feel lucky to catch a few minutes alone at the end of the day. Parenting is never easy, and sheltering in place has taken the challenge to a new level. But luckily there are proactive steps parents can take to help ensure that everyone in the family gets through this time unscathed.

James Schroeder, a pediatric clinical psychologist, has ample firsthand experience with this: He’s the father of eight children, ranging in age from 13-year-old twins to an 8-month-old baby. He shared five key pieces of advice for parents trying to get through quarantine…

1
Pay attention to your physical health habits

Schroeder encourages parents to pay attention to physical health, including sleep, diet, and activity. It’s not always obvious, but these factors have an enormous effect on feelings and moods.

“Mental health is very much connected to your lifestyle practices: sleep patterns, activity patterns, and food choices,” Schroeder says. “During this time, it’s critical to pay attention to those three pillars of health. How well do you set up sleep habits? Lots of research shows that dietary patterns are connected to moods and mental health, and research shows that lowered activity levels are linked to poorer mental health.”

Making healthy choices each day can be a transforming act of self-care. No matter how frustrating your day was, taking 7 minutes to stretch and move your body, or going to bed early so you can feel rested, may help you feel more calm and in control, as research supports.

This piece of advice should not be taken as an indictment of choices made in quarantine, but rather as useful information to take into account when making decisions. This pandemic is a kind of global trauma, and everyone has to process it and get through it in their own way. On top of that, practicing healthy habits might be impossible right now: Perhaps food options are limited, or anxiety is causing insomnia. However, when discussing ways to improve mental health, it’s important to remember just how big of an impact our physical health habits makes.

2
Build in breaks and plan for self-care

Schroeder has an important message for parents who are feeling the pressure of this time:

“You have to put on your own oxygen mask first before you give it to the person next to you. There are so many well-intentioned parents who are trying to give their kids everything they need but they aren’t taking care of themselves. I tell parents, the mental health of the household is always going to start with you. Taking care of yourself holistically is actually the greatest thing you can do for your kids. Everything begins with you. You can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t promote the kind of mental health that you aren’t pursuing.”

It’s all very well to encourage taking time for yourself, but what does this look like in practice? Schroeder encourages parents to plan for little spaces of respite throughout the day.

Don’t think of it as 24 hours continuously, but build in positive breaks for yourself,” he says. “Maybe 5 times a day you go walk circles around the yard, or call a friend, or listen to music, or even lock yourself in the bathroom.” 

One key strategy is to communicate clearly with other adults in the home when you need a break. Telling your spouse, “I need to take five minutes alone in the bedroom before dinner,” may help you face the evening routine with renewed fortitude. It’s a relief to have this “escape valve,” however brief, when you need it.

3
Reframe your thoughts to encourage yourself and your family

“Thought reframing” is a psychological tool that is especially useful for parents during quarantine. The basic idea is to turn negative self-talk into something encouraging and positive, and, when put into practice, the effect is powerful.

Parents need to be aware of their own mental state. What are the internal messages and thoughts that we are embracing?,” Schroeder says. “For example, parents might be thinking, ‘I’m losing my mind! I can’t do this!’ But we have to be careful about not embracing that, or not allowing that to be what we say to ourselves over and over. You start to believe what you say to yourself.”

Schroeder encourages parents to replace those defeating thoughts with self-talk that affirms their ability to persevere through this experience.

“Change that thought to ‘This is a really stressful time, but I’ve got some things I can do to make it better.’ Or tell yourself, ‘I’ve been through difficult things before. I’m not losing it. I can do this.’ During this time we want to leave a legacy of resilience with our kids and not a legacy of anxiety. It starts with what we say to ourselves.”

Another example of thought reframing might be changing “I am stuck inside” to “I can focus on my home and family,” or changing “I just want to do normal things” to “I am looking forward to doing normal things and grateful when we can do them again, but I’ll also look for reasons to be grateful now, too.”

4
Manage the message

Closely related to reframing our own thoughts is managing the message we present to our kids. 

“This is a very anxious time, but the way we approach our kids is really important,” Schroeder says. “Think about what we model for them, the way we act and speak and think in front of our kids. Focus on messages of what we can control instead of messages of anxiety and fear.”

You might have each member of the family share something they’re grateful for each day, or tell your kids, “I’m glad we get to have more time at home together.” Many families are making a time capsule which helps kids embrace positive messages for this time, like changing “I am stuck at home” to “I am safe at home.”

Managing the message means not only the example you give your children, but the media you’re consuming.

“I worry about families taking in too much media during this time. What we take in is what we’re going to exude,” Schroeder says. He encourages parents to check the news once or twice a day, but try not to follow it obsessively. “If you’re reading and watching a lot of stuff that’s going to promote anxiety, that’s going to hurt your mental state. Be careful what you consume because it will end up finding its way through you.” 

5
Don't hesitate to reach out for help

A global pandemic is not the time to tough it out on your own and pull yourself up by the bootstraps. We are all deeply connected to each other and responsible for each other, even when we’re physically distant, as this time has shown us.

Schroeder says, “Reach out to people who are in the same boat, or have been through it who can encourage you. This is really a time not to be afraid to reach out. It’s ok to say, ‘Can we talk? I’m not in a good place.’ Sometimes it just takes a couple minutes on the phone and it changes your day.”

If you’re having a difficult day, text or call a friend, family member, or parenting mentor. You reaching out will brighten their day as well as yours, and will help you bear up a little longer. Little by little, with the help of our friends and family and the grace of God, we’ll get through this together.

Remember, too, that some counselors and therapists are offering virtual sessions right now if you need more professional help.

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