By Jason Sabo, Ph.D., site supervisor at Lee Health’s Pediatric Behavioral Health Practice
There is no doubt that COVID-19 will have long-term mental health implications. But forcing families to spend time together during stay-at-home, work-at-home and virtual learning may have positive family impact.
I do not want to invalidate the struggles families are facing. They are real. Families are dealing with extremely difficult situations that have threatened their basic need for safety and security. However, the pandemic can allow our resilience to shine through and show our children how to make the best of even the worst situations.
While we are not always in control of our circumstances, we are in control of our attitude. Within this pandemic, I have seen a lot of families dealing with stressful situations. However, I have also seen a great deal of resilience, both by parents and children. I have seen families adapt by eating more family dinners together, rediscovering “old school” board games, going on family walks and taking trips to local parks.
Thus, the situation has created an unexpected reset, allowing families to simplify their lives in many ways.
The first positive family impact: Family resilience is built by finding flexibility to react to changing circumstances, leading to cooperation and closer family bonds.
Families have had the opportunity to spend more time together and get back to basics, increasing the time we spend with our children. Any time we change the “normal routine,” there will also be changes in other areas.
Children typically find themselves in various systems, ranging from home to school, and then to the most expansive system, which includes society and culture.
Each of these systems interact with and influence each other. Think of it like throwing a rock in a calm pond. Multiple rocks thrown in the pond (stressors) create ripples. The more ripples, the more stress. Occasionally, a boulder is thrown in the pond, throwing everything off. This pandemic is a giant boulder. It has affected every area. A new normal has been slowly created.
A survey conducted in the United Kingdom shows that most families have risen above the stress of the pandemic to become even closer than before. According to a survey of 2,000 British parents conducted by MumPoll, four in five believe their families have formed a stronger bond.
Control of Time
The second positive family impact is children have more control of their time, allowing them to manage more of their day. This can can encourage independent behaviors such as preparing snacks, doing chores and resolving sibling disputes when parents must focus on work.
There are many ways to help children learn to be more independent and accountable. I encourage parents to buy their children’s snacks at the beginning of the week and allow the child to access them during the week. Often children will eat all of them the first day. The rest of the week will be a reminder of the lesson. Generally, the following week they make snacks last longer.
It is also important to have a list of daily goals. When possible, link internet use with completing them. For example, most phone providers have services to help parents manage internet/data usage.
In my house, we have found creative ways to encourage physical activities. Our children are allowed two hours of electronics each day. They can add an hour of screen time for each mile they run. My 13-year-old ran 24 miles the first week! (We had to change the system after that!)
The third positive family impact is involving children in the work of the family helps their self-regard and responsibility, increasing self-esteem.
I personally believe children of all ages should have household chores. I see many parents who take care of everything for their children. As a result, children can be less prepared for life and taking care of themselves. The goal is giving our children the skills necessary to handle whatever life throws at them. Chores can change with age and can include making their bed, putting their clothes away, doing dishes, sweeping and taking out the trash. As children get older, they can have more tasks, while keeping in mind their number one priority is education.
More Time for Sleep
The fourth positive family impact is children have more time to rest without travel to school, work and after-school activities.
As a result, many children have an additional three hours of sleep that they would have spent on the bus or travel. However, it is important to avoid waking up and turning on the computer right away. Parents are encouraged to treat every day, especially days children attend virtual school, as if they were going to physical school. They should get up, take a shower, eat breakfast and get dressed. This is a big part of respect for themselves and others and keeping a routine so important to children’s stability.
Positive Family Impact: Keeping Life Simple
All things considered, being forced to halt busy lives and spend time together has made many think about what’s important, including children, family and our community.
As children return to school, how can parents support any gains made in family life by simplifying? The trick is balance through a blend of unstructured play, child-centered activities and rich parent-child time.
- Put school first. Ask children about their day. Ask them to teach you something they recently learned.
- Maintain healthy control on screen time.
- Include your child in picking their activities. Children are much more willing to do things that were their idea.
- Don’t over plan. Pay attention to potential warning signs that a child is over-loaded including a change in sleep, a change in appetite, irritability, lethargy or a drop in grades.
- Enforce family time. Make it a priority to have family dinners or family game nights. If you have multiple children, give them each an opportunity to select the game/activity. Remember, as parents, we set the mood. Be excited and encouraging about the activity.
- Introduce new expectations or changes in routines before school starts. Do not wait until the night before to begin new routines.
- As the new normal is being defined, it’s important to realize that this, too, will be a change. Parents need to help children by staying in touch. Children must be aware of what is expected and be involved in the process. Set family and individual goals for the new school year.
It’s important to realize that continuing the “we’re in this together” family bond and setting up routines during the pandemic will help to positively redefine the post-pandemic family.
Visit Lee Health Pediatric Behavioral Health or call 239-343-6050 to learn about available children’s mental health services or to schedule an appointment.
To support mental health programs in our region, visit KidsMindsMatter.com.