Four Ways to Ease the Toll on Children's Mental Health During the Pandemic
We asked an acquaintance of ours how she was doing in this “fourth wave” of the pandemic.
She told us that she was fully vaccinated, but then she went on to say, “I guess the best way to describe how I’m feeling is sort of lonely and out of sync. I struggle to remember what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m dreading going back to work in the office. It’s like my first day on the job even though I’ve been at this job several years and have been working from home for the last…what? Eighteen months?
“My kids are in school this fall, which is good. Any more time together, and we’d have destroyed each other. I guess the best way to describe how I’m feeling is that I’ve been drowning and just came up for air. But I’m in the middle of the water and don’t know where I am or how to get to shore. Weird, right?”
Everyone we know can relate to our friend’s struggles with what has become a very common mental health issue that we know as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is the result of chronic stress that causes a near constant release of the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones mobilize our bodies and minds to either fight or flee from some sort of danger. The problem is, we can’t see the danger. It is like walking through the forest where bears live but not seeing the bears. We know they are there and are all set to run or stand and fight if necessary; but we don’t see them. We hear reports of the bears; some of our friends have fallen victim to the bears, but we only know they are around us. Scary feelings!
So what can we do to overcome this chronic and destructive state of stress? We know that having the stress hormones pumping through our bodies can be harmful, not only to our physically, but also emotionally, without a consistent nurturing adult to mitigate the stress. In our recent book, Discipline with Love and Limits, we share how unrelenting stress can lead to some of the most common, serious, and costly health conditions facing our society today, including nine of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S., as well as earlier mortality.
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So before we go further, let’s clearly state the bottom line: It’s okay to not be okay. If you are feeling overwhelmed, angry and anxious in this highly charged emotional time, you are not alone. It is important that you know this, even if it is uncomfortable to admit these feelings, and something that didn’t happen when you were a child or before the pandemic. You may be asking just how to go about getting help with the “pandemic blues”, particularly if you were taught that to do so is “being weak”, “giving up” or admitting “failure”. Let’s talk about that stigma of talking about your feelings and turning to others for support. Doing so is the first step in building a new Mind S.E.T.®
First Step: Talk to Yourself
You might first ask the question: Where do my feelings come from? Do they just happen? Do I get them from others? Sometimes the answer can seem to be yes—sometimes feelings seem as contagious as COVID-19. But biological science has taught us that the answer to that question lies in the S of Mind S.E.T., which we use to mean “self-talk”. Self-talk is that ongoing monologue you have with yourself as you experience your day. In effect, you are describing to yourself the daily events and assigning values to the events though your language.
There are two kinds of words that you use in your self-talk: One is words that are based on logical reality. These words produce emotions that are appropriate to the situation. Short example: Last night our friend and her granddaughter, Sara, were talking about her book on feelings. Our friend told Sara that she noticed she was getting much better at handling her big feelings. Sara said, "Grammy, it's all because of self-talk. I just tell myself that things are going to be okay and I can handle feeling sad or mad." What a great example of what we mean by "assigning values to the events though your language". Hooray for Sara learning this at the age of six. It will serve her well her entire life.
The second kind of words used in self-talk are not based on logical reality. An example is how you describe the fact that your children are complaining about wearing masks to school. You might use self-talk like this: “It’s awful that my children have to wear a mask. It’s terrible that it’s so dangerous not to. I should be doing something to help them. Because I can’t, I’ll never be a good parent. I worry that my children will grow up hating me.” Describing the event in that way will produce some really bad feelings ranging from anger to anguish.
When you look at the situation above, you find several words that are not based on logical reality. “Awful” and “terrible” are exaggeration words and usually make the problem even worse. Awful describes a calamity. Terrible brings terror. These are hardly realistic when describing the temporary suffering of disappointed children. “Should” is a demand word and implies that one is mandated to act under severe penalty. And finally, there is the word, “never”. Never is a very, very long time, to infinity. In this case, it implies that good parenting is not an achievable goal. These words produce emotions that are inappropriate to the situation.
Second Step: Get in the pro-purge and anti-worry habit
We are here with some self-talk good news. Help is available this moment! A big help in developing rational self-talk is to make a list of purge words. On a sheet of paper, write these words: awful/terrible, should/must, always/never. Now post this list where you will see it every day, and then watch your language. When one of these words pops up, think about the situation. Does the word actually fit? If not, substitute a more moderate word. An example: I’ll never get this right. Rephrase this as: I might not get it right. The “might not” substitution opens the problem to trying smarter to find a solution. “Never” simply closes that door.
Another pandemic-blues maker to watch for is the act of worrying. We all do it, as we look ahead with dread about what’s to come. Worry is a merry-go-round of thinking and is based on the words “what if”. What if that happens? The question simply keeps cycling with no route to a solution to the problem. To counter the worry cycle, add the word so, to the what-if question, as in, “So what if the thing I'm worried about happens? What will I do?
As you can see, the potential problem, one that actually hasn’t happened, is neutralized by thinking it through as a so-what-if question. Instead of thinking yourself into a problem through the cycle of worry, think yourself through it and out the other side by having a plan and changing your thinking.
Your use of self-talk is based on Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which is best stated in the formula:
Recognize the emotion -> Identify thought -> Change thought -> Change emotion.
An example of this formula might be: I’m angry -> I think that my child must do what I say -> I would like for my child to cooperate -> I’m only frustrated. I know I can handle frustration. I've done it before. I can do it again.
This approach takes practice, so don’t expect it to change your emotions in a day. You’ve spent a lifetime so far developing a thinking process, and change will take time. Have hope in the prospect of a much calmer you.
Third Step: Make empathy your new best friend
Your mind takes you to logical, rational self-talk when your thoughts turn to another person’s feelings and you reach out to your fellow humans with a smile, a virtual high-five or any encouragement. You neutralize worrying by changing your self-talk to empathetic-talk, such as: “I will be patient with people I haven’t seen in so long—if they don’t remember my name, I’ll understand—I may not know their name, either!”
Telling yourself those words when you become impatient with others will help you cope with the stress of the pandemic more than blaming the pandemic for their “losing” their memory or for their “making a mistake”. We are all starting “new” habits again. We’re all in this together.
That “all in this together” motto is more than a catchy slogan in a pandemic. It is life-altering. The “E” in Mind S.E.T., empathy, is an ability that we are all born with that begins our path of caring about others, and considering their needs as well as our own. Empathic behavior in this pandemic—thinking about how to keep those you are near as safe as possible-- keeps you AND others safe. Empathy sows the seeds of kindness, respect, compassion, caring. It’s an emotional muscle that needs exercising to grow.
How to increase empathy in your children’s lives? Name it! Acknowledge that it was so helpful for a child to think about your feelings, to be so understanding of your pain or to bring you some ice when you trip and fall, for example. Let them know that’s called “empathy”, and it makes you feel so good. Using your innate talents of empathy allows you to get out of your pandemic blues and into brightening the world of others, as it does all children.
Now it may seem easy to use empathy when working with children, but what about with co-workers during the pandemic stress? Developing empathy for fellow workers, frustrated children and others you encounter can take away your re-entry fears. You can say, “Hey, wait a minute. We’re all suffering though this pandemic.” Sounds easy, right? But impossible if you’re stuck in negative awful, should, and terrible self-talk that doesn’t put yourself in another person’s shoes.
Fourth Step: Teach Problem-Solving, not Problem-Wallowing
The big payoff when you use this healthy self-talk and empathy (Mind S.E.T.) is that you naturally begin to teach this healthy way to cope with adversity to your children. You prevent toxic stress by building consistently nurturing relationships with self-talk, empathy and the third step, teaching. Problem-solving, not problem-wallowing, feels so much better, emotionally, and has healing written it all over it (think Resilience). Plus, it helps you come out the other side of this pandemic in much better shape, mentally, emotionally and physically (think preventing toxic stress).
You don’t have to wait one more minute to use logical, rational self-talk and empathy to teach children to do the same. Say to your child, “You should…, no wait… it would be helpful for you to pick up your toys and put them in the toy box.” Your self-correction provides a model of self-correction for your child. Likewise, saying things aloud will also help your co-workers hear a more logical and rational way of thinking; and if asked, you can explain what you’re doing and why.
Sharing these good mental (and physical) healthy strategies with others by modeling them yourself is a win-win—a kind and thoughtful thing to do that shows empathy for your fellow humans, as well as yourself. Show yourself that “perfect” is another word to purge, as you admit that sometimes change is the only constant. Then say “see ya” to the pandemic blues and “hello” to self-talking, empathizing and teaching your way to a healthy Mind S.E.T. today and every day.
Read more about a healthy Mind S.E.T. and how to care for yourself and your children.
Jerry Wyckoff, Ph.D. is a child psychologist who has helped parents and children for more than 40 years and has coauthored five books and has co-authored five books on parenting with Barbara C. Unell.
Barbara C. Unell is a parent-educator, social entrepreneur and journalist who has coauthored over a dozen books on parenting and is a co-founder of the Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, with Dr. Wyckoff.