COVID-19 blog series
In order to conform with federal and state mandates for families to stay at home to diminish the spread of the coronavirus, American families are in the midst of a new phenomenon: social distancing by sheltering in our homes to avoid social contact for national health and wellbeing. Regardless of the makeup of your family, this is a challenging and stressful time. For families with younger children in the home, these early experiences may have a long-lasting impact on their mental health and sense of wellbeing. In this blog, you will find some suggestions for establishing a healthy home environment that will help to sustain you throughout this difficult time.
Our society has a lack of attention to the
social and emotional health of very young children, and we observe this
phenomenon in the growing number of young children who are suspended or
expelled from preschool or who
may experience higher rates of drug use, depression and other health issues in adolescence
and adulthood. What we need to understand is that a significant number
of these social and health problems can be linked to young children’s exposure
to experiences that severely impact their social-emotional health, also known
as adverse childhood experiences (ACES). It is important that
adults take care of their own well-being for their health. Additionally, the
quality of adult-child relationships is essential to child development and learning in the early
years, as we wrote in a recent
ICS brief on early childhood mental health.
research and recommendations of mental health specialists, here are strategies
to use to create a more predictable and positive home environment for everyone—parents,
children and extended family members. Some of these tips are informed by Margie
Donlon, a counseling specialist, in a recent item shared on Facebook, and in an ICS Brief on Early
Childhood Mental Health,
co-authored by A. Baum K. Schnake, and D. Stegelin.
- Try to view this time as a once in a lifetime, historical experience and find ways to document your family’s activities during this
stay at home period. Take photos throughout this period and encourage your
children to write and draw about how they are feeling. Make available lots of
different kinds of paper and writing tools and give your children a camera for
them to take pictures, too. Perhaps you can create a scrapbook or journal for
the family as a way to preserve this experience for future sharing and be sure
to include family photos!
- Develop and maintain a daily routine that is predictable yet flexible. For example, go to sleep and wake up at consistent times, set timeframes for meals, and create chunks of time for major activities such as work-related, school-related, physical exercise, connecting with others through technology, and family entertainment and playing. Establish a schedule that is varied and includes time for work as well as entertainment, play and self-care. Each family’s schedule will look different and should be created as a family unit. Make a colorful poster of the schedule and hang it in a visible place in the home. For parents who are also home schooling, build in focused time for study and classroom assignments, and be sure to include play time within the schooling chunk of time. Remember that children are learning by helping with household activities, such as measuring and cooking, and planting a garden as examples and should be viewed as part of the educational process.
- Establish daily self-care routines such as a bath or shower, getting dressed, doing hair and other grooming routines, and dressing in a way that stimulates physical activity in and around the house. Dress for the social life you desire, not necessarily the more limited social life you have during this period of time. Put on some bright colors—how we dress can impact our mood and feelings about the day. Encourage children to maintain these routines also. Hanging out all day in pajamas or skipping daily hygiene routines can contribute to a sense of isolation and a negative mood.
- Make a list of projects or tasks that need to be completed in your house. Involve your children in making this list and include them in the actual projects. Examples include cleaning the play area, restocking the pantry, organizing closets and giving clothes to those in need, making a scrapbook from last summer’s vacation, planting a spring garden, and other household projects that engage both adults and children.
- Get outside at least once a day, regardless of where you live. Maintain social distancing throughout these outdoor activities. Some neighborhoods are more adaptable to outdoor play, but all neighborhoods afford some opportunity for outdoor physical activities. Outdoor time should last for at least thirty minutes once a day, and more if feasible. If you are concerned about being seen or sharing contact with neighbors and others, then find a time early in the morning, or later in the evening. You can also look for streets and areas that are more secluded and not so busy. Some examples of family outdoor activities can be bicycling, throwing a frisbee or ball, exercising as a family, dancing to favorite music, and having a picnic or snack on a blanket in the yard or a picnic table in the backyard. If going outdoors really isn’t possible, then use the porch and open the windows or set up fans. Let sunshine be a part of your daily indoor environment. Getting sunshine and fresh air is good for your physical and mental health, and vitamin D can be obtained with a short period of daylight each day.
- Drink fresh water and eat healthy foods, especially lots of vegetables and fruits. This means grocery shopping with care and keeping personal safety and hygiene in mind. If you have a high- risk person in your household, consider having groceries delivered to your front door. Staying indoors for 24 hours at a time is a new routine for most families, and there may be the desire to bake or buy cakes, cookies, and other sweets. Instead, focus on cooking and baking healthy meals and snacks. Extreme eating patterns should be avoided; it can be easy to overeat, partly out of boredom. However, stress and eating often don’t mix well, and we sometimes find ourselves over-indulging, forgetting to eat, or even avoiding food. Drink plenty of water, eat some good and nutritious foods, and challenge yourself to learn how to cook something new! This is also a good time to teach younger children how to cook, bake, and learn some math and science as they measure and create their own dishes. Finding and reading recipe books can be fun, and children can expand their vocabularies in the process. Take pictures of your children mixing up a salad or making a green bean casserole! (We know that not all families are able to access fresh healthy foods right now – ICS will discuss the impact on food-insecure families in an upcoming blog post).
- Reach out to others at least once daily for 30-60 minutes using FaceTime, Skype, phone calls, texting—connect with other people to seek and provide support. Part of the daily schedule should include connection time for your children as well. This also is an opportunity to Skype between grandparents and grandchildren. For relatives in assisted living, retirement, or hospital settings, these connections are very important. Older people often feel isolated and alone in their living spaces, so this is a chance to model for your children and engage them directly in caring for another generation. You can also set up virtual playdates with friends daily via FaceTime, Facebook Messenger Kids, and Zoom—your kids miss their friends and teachers, too!
- Spend extra time playing with your children, as they will rarely communicate how they are feeling. Instead, you may observe some regression in their behaviors or see therapeutic play themes of illness, doctor visits, or stay-at-home and isolation play. Younger children are especially challenged to identify, understand and verbalize their current feelings. Instead, they may say that they don’t feel good, have a stomach ache, or some other physical ailment. Understand that play is therapeutic and helpful for children—it is how they process their world and problem solve, and there’s a lot they are seeing and experiencing now. It can also be therapeutic for the whole family to play and express their feelings and needs. Board games, puzzles and card games can generate positive interactions among family members and also enhance their moods. (See our previous post on talking with kids about COVID-19 if your family is navigating tricky questions).
- Everyone in the family should ideally be able to find their own personal retreat space. Help each child identify a place where they can go to retreat when stressed. You can make this place cozy by using familiar and favorite items such as blankets, pillows, cushions, scarves, beanbags, tents and “forts.” These individual retreats can ease the tension of family members being confined to the same space day after day.
- Be kind to yourself and lower your usual expectations. We all are doing too many things in this moment, under fear and stress. Instead of aiming for excellence in everything, give yourself what psychologists call “radical self-acceptance”—accepting and embracing everything about yourself, your current situation and your life without question, blame or pushback. There is no roadmap or precedent for this situation, and we are all truly doing the best we can in a challenging situation. Children need role models who are authentic and who demonstrate honesty in their feelings and actions; this is an opportunity for parents to assume this role at a challenging time.
- For parents’ own mental health wellbeing, try to limit social media and COVID conversations, especially around young children. Find a few trusted sources that you can check in with consistently, limit it to a few times a day, and set a time limit for yourself on how much you consume (a few minutes, 2-3 times daily). Adults with previous or existing mental health or substance use issues should particularly prioritize their own care – as the expression goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” The CDC recommends calling your health care provider if stress interferes with your daily activities for several days in a row.
- Help your children notice the good in the world, the first responders and helpers. There are also a ton of stories of people supporting one another in meaningful ways. It is important to counter-balance the heavy information with the hopeful information. You can also find ways for your family to help others: contribute money to a local community agency or fund; writing notes and letters to older relatives, teachers, and classmates; take food to a local food pantry or church. When we give of ourselves, it gives us a sense of control and contribution.
These are only a few suggestions for parents
and families to consider. As you review these recommendations, think about your
own household situation. Some of these tips are more relevant to you than
others, and we recognize that existing disparities in America means families
have radically different resources for weathering this crisis. Our goal is to
help support families who are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime event that
requires self-discipline and careful consideration for the health needs of each
family member as well as others. This is a journey that will challenge all
families, and we encourage you to reach out to ICS and other agencies that
serve families and young children for support and guidance.