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5 Ways to Support Your Family's Mental Health During the Pandemic

As a survivor of bipolar disorder, a mental disorder which causes extreme mood swings, major life disruption and uncertainty are difficult for me.

Thanks to Pandemic 2020 — due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), the new viral strain that affects the lungs and respiratory system — my work schedule has been interrupted, my husband’s work schedule has drastically altered, our social life has disappeared and my kids are completely thrown off. Field trips were cancelled, basketball season delayed and school went online until the end of the academic year. Dates spin in and out of my head, fighting for the return of normalcy. Is it April 30? Mid-June? Or do we wait for September to resume prior activities? I can’t even keep track.

However, I can verbalize my grief, share about it with my friends (via phone or text only, of course), see my counselor and have long discussions with my husband.

My kids don’t know how to express their fear or anxiety as well. For them, it comes out in misbehavior, aggression, moodiness, hyperactivity, tearfulness or even closed off apathy. That is developmentally understandable. As their prefrontal cortexes are still developing, it is difficult for them to access emotions or positive decision-making when they are in fight or flight mode. A stressful trigger, like being told they can no longer see their friends or go to school, is going to take a toll on their bodies.

As my friend, child behavior specialist Dr. Sandy Gluckman reminds me, “children are physiologically incapable of making good decisions when they are stressed.” Stress hormones get ramped up, contributing to more fear and anxiety that are difficult to process. Chronic stress can also affect the immune system and its function.

Even though we adults have the luxury of developed brains, it is still difficult to access our frontal lobe and respond appropriately to hardship when we are faced with extreme stressors. You only need to take one glance at highly charged Facebook comments to see how mature adults are responding to each other in stressful times. My fellow parent friends and I are scared and stressed, and I know if that impacts our interactions with other adults, it for sure impacts the way we parent.

So what is the solution to helping our children manage their mental health?

It starts with us.

If we, as parents, can learn to manage our stress and be aware of our triggers, we teach our children proper responses. Children are so perceptive. They feed off of our emotions, whether we know it or not. You know the old saying, “Put your own oxygen mask on first?” I absolutely believe that during times of uncertainty, we must put our oxygen masks on in order to best care for our children’s emotions. Here’s how:

1. Mind your use of social media. There are so many articles and opinions and views on social media right now, more so than ever before. This can trigger a stress and anxiety response in the body. I have learned I need to limit my time on social media, and I have completely stopped clicking on every gloom and doom article posted. I asked my husband to keep the news off when I am in the room and to only update me on a need-to-know basis. With that, I can much more easily manage my thoughts, which leads to my second recommendation.

2. Create awareness of unpleasant emotions. When my mind starts racing, I can let it go into a lot of scary “what if” apocalyptic-type of thinking. When I find myself doing that, I stop and take note of what is happening in my body. Am I feeling physically tense? Am I experiencing fast, shallow breathing? Is my chest tight? Does my stomach hurt?

I create awareness of those things, then I ask myself what is happening to cause that. Am I feeling out of control? Unsafe? Helpless? Fearful? If so, why? What is it that is underneath those feelings? Is there a lie that I am believing? Then, after I have created awareness of the cause of my anxiety, I combat it with truth. Whether it’s a mantra, affirmation or a scripture verse, I must keep myself grounded in that truth when my mind is racing.

3. Practice breathwork. Taking deep breaths is so important for my continued well-being, that I have taught my children how to focus on breath as well. When we take deep breaths through our noses and slowly let all the air out, it helps to take us out of fight or flight mode and activates our parasympathetic nervous system, the natural “chill pill” system in our bodies. I love the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Breathe in through the nose for four seconds, hold it for seven, breathe out through the mouth for eight.

4. Get active. As the weather allows, get outside and take a walk in the sunshine. This is a wonderful way to stimulate the production of vitamin D in the body, which is excellent for immune health and mood health, not to mention improved sleep, which is also much needed during times of fear and uncertainty.

5. Accept this extra time as a gift. Yes, many of us are trying to juggle work and kids at home all the time. Or maybe we are experiencing job changes or layoffs. There are so many unknowns. Remind yourself that it is only temporary. It won’t stay like this forever.

I can’t control the future or the outcome. I don’t know the end date. I do know that I am getting more time with my family than I ever have before, and we get the opportunity to make memories that will last a lifetime. By creating a safe place of fun and joy for my kids, I can redirect the way they experience this pandemic. We are enjoying baking, creating new recipes, making music, playing games, watching funny shows on TV, playing outside and many other activities that we don’t always have time for.

We have so many tools available to help us survive this trying time, and our children have us as guides. My hope is that we as parents can find awareness and grounding first, so that ultimately our children can find peace.

For more on parenting during quarantine, check out the following stories:

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