Keeping good mental health at home in the face of COVID-19
Shailagh Clarke, PhD, LP Kris Robinson, PsyD, LP
In this significant time of stress, caregivers and parents are often perplexed about what and how to communicate with children. In this article, we offer information, ways of interacting, and tips to keep good mental health in the home.
What Is COVID-19 or Coronavirus? According to the Cleveland Clinic:
“COVID-19 is a virus strain, first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, that has only spread in people since December 2019.
Health experts are closely monitoring the situation because little is known about this new virus, and it has the potential to cause severe illness and pneumonia in some people.
COVID-19 is primarily spread through respiratory droplets, which means to become infected, people generally must be within six feet of someone who is contagious and come into contact with these droplets. It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. Symptoms of COVID-19 appear within two to 14 days after exposure and include fever, cough, runny nose and difficulty breathing” (https://newsroom.clevelandclinic.org/2020/03/15/frequently-asked-questions-about-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/)
It is important to balance between under- and over-sharing of information relating to COVID-19. The amount and detail of information shared will also vary widely depending on the age of the child.For example, the story below was written for young children but may also be useful for older children as a way to start the conversation, with additional facts given as appropriate.
Some children and adolescents will react more strongly than others. Although it may be tempting to shield children from information, a developmentally-appropriate version of the truth is the best response to worry, questions, and strong feelings. A therapeutic treatment method called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been widely found to effectively treat anxiety and a number of other emotional issues (Beck, 1993). The following steps of acknowledging the facts, providing concrete actions, and offering reassurance are an adaptation of CBT, which parents and caregivers can use at home.
1. Acknowledge the facts to ensure accurate processing:
“There is a sickness affecting some people right now all over the world. Most of the sick people get better by resting and staying home, just like you have done when you’ve been sick.”
Facts can be gathered from reliable sources such as medical professionals and the Center for Disease Control (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html#basics). Monitoring the exposure to media in the home is always important, especially with such stressful and confusing world events. Reduce stigma by talking about the world-wide impact.
2. Provide concrete actions and model gratitude, which gives a sense of control:
“Here are some things we can do in our family: stay home, keep our house clean, wash our hands really well, and cover with our arm when we cough or sneeze.”
Being grateful for the resources in our community and homes and exploring ways the family can help others are other concrete ways to keep a healthy mindset in the midst of such confusion.
3. Reassure and acknowledge feelings:
“Great doctors and nurses are working hard to learn more and more about how to stay healthy. Kids are not generally getting sick. We are doing lots of things to stay healthy in our family. Let’s help each other by talking about how we feel and acting in healthy ways. You can always ask me questions and I’ll listen and try to answer.”
In times of social-distancing, keeping children busy at home with a range of activities can help distract from worries, although the resources and time to guide children in activities are likely not available to all. If the activity ideas below are not a fit for your child or your family during this time, encourage children to get outdoors if possible. Taking a walk outside, playing catch, or finding a place to hike in nature are activities that can break up a long day of social isolation.
Parent and caregivers need to practice good self-care, which will allow them to model a calm, rational demeanor and establish refuge at home. Children are watching and picking up on adult cues and feelings. Taking small moments of time to yourself to relax or just take a deep breath is hard in this time of extended family togetherness is difficult but remains very important.
In this unprecedented time, we all must return to basics in our families such as good listening and communication, creative outlets for both mental and physical energy, and prioritizing self-care.
Dr. Kris Robinson and Dr. Shailagh Clarke are licensed psychologists and owners of Hill Country Therapy & Testing, a private practice in Lakeway, Texas providing therapy and neuropsychological assessment services for children and adults.
Beck, A. T. (1993). Cognitive therapy: Past, present, and future. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(2), 194–198.
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