August 26, 2020

Caring for parents' mental health as the school year begins

Madison, Wis. — As an unconventional school year looms for many families, it is important for parents to be aware of their own mental health while tending to the needs of their children and families.

The changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic can cause stress for parents, according to Greg Rogers, psychologist and supervisor at UW Health Behavioral Health.

"The pandemic continues and carries threats beyond infection like anxiety, anger, grief and loneliness as adults deal with insecurity and change," he said. "The COVID19 crisis is a challenge to the population's emotional health that requires intentional coping efforts." 

There are things parents can do to help their own well-being and prepare their families for stress of the school year ahead, Rogers said.

  • Accept that the emotions are there: Human beings are emotional by design, and feelings tend to be transient, like waves, and can be often be controlled or at least ridden safely.

  • Take your emotional temperature:  Rate it on a scale from 1 to 100. When you know what you are dealing with, you are in the best position to decide what to do about it. 

  • Pick a coping strategy: What has worked well before? Some suggestions:

  • Activate. If you are down or depressed, try to get moving, literally. If exercising is overwhelming, start at a different place. Pick a chore that requires a little movement, and gives you a small sense of accomplishment.

  • Regulate. If you are "worked up," you need to calm your system down.  Slow your breathing. Get a change of scenery or just refocus your attention on something more pleasant, knowing it will be easier to deal with the problem when you are not flooded.  

  • Communicate. Share your burden with someone. Express what you need. And check in with another person, to see if there is something you can do for them. This is a little counter-intuitive, but often a great way to relieve one's own distress.

Helping children effectively handle their stress is an important component in how well parents cope with their own situation, and there are some key tactics that can help.

  • Show kids how it's done: Thanks to the pandemic, parents and other adults they live with bear a greater responsibility to be models of healthy reactions and choices. Approach challenges with positivity, realism and a sense of purpose, and kids will observe and learn how to cope.      

  • Make a plan: Think about space and time for being a student, and boundaries between school and other important parts of life. If possible, set up a distraction-free environment or workstation that the child associates with academic tasks or online learning activities. 

  • Play to your child's strengths: Take advantage of the opportunity to indulge your child's creativity, mathematical skills, passion for history or whatever drives them, and connect it to other learning experiences

  • Stretch your child's capabilities: Identify the areas in which your child needs to develop and set modest, incremental goals with or for them. For example, if their mind wanders away from a task in 10 minutes, encourage them to see if they can focus for 15.