Parents and children are facing major life disruptions with the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). School closures, physical distancing, it’s a lot to take in and it’s difficult for everyone in the family. We sat down with expert adolescent psychologist, best-selling author, monthly New York Times columnist and mother of two Dr. Lisa Damour to learn more about how families can support each other and make the most of this new (temporary) normal.
UNICEF: How can teenagers and parents take care of their mental health during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak?
Dr. Damour: The first thing that parents can do is actually to normalize the fact that they [teenagers] are feeling anxious. Many teenagers have the misunderstanding that anxiety is always a sign of mental illness when in fact, psychologists have long recognized that anxiety is a normal and healthy function that alerts us to threats and helps us take measures to protect ourselves. So it’s very helpful for teenagers if you say, “You’re having the right reaction. Some anxiety right now makes sense, you’re supposed to feel that way. And that anxiety is going to help you make the decisions that you need to be making right now.” Practicing social distancing, washing your hands often and not touching your face — your anxiety will help you do what needs to be done right now, so that you can feel better. So that’s one thing we can do.
Another thing we can do is actually help them look outward. Say to them, “Listen, I know you’re feeling really anxious about catching coronavirus, but part of why we’re asking you to do all these things — to wash your face, to stay close to home — is that that’s also how we take care of members of our community. We think about the people around us.”
And then give them further things to do that may be of help: perhaps dropping off food to people in need or going shopping for them or figuring out what areas of our community need support and doing things to support the people around them while maintaining social distance. Finding ways to care for others will help young people feel better themselves.
And then the third thing to help with anxiety is to help young people find distractions. What psychologists know is that when we are under chronically difficult conditions — and this is certainly a chronically difficult condition that’s going to go on for a while — it’s very helpful to divide the problem into two categories: things I can do something about, and then things I can do nothing about. There’s going to be a lot in that second category right now, where kids are going to have to live with a pretty difficult situation for a while.
Researchers have found that finding positive distractions can help us deal with that second category: we do our homework, we watch our favourite movies, we get in bed with a novel. That is a very appropriate strategy right now. There’s probably a lot to be said for talking about coronavirus and anxiety as a way to seek relief, and there is also a lot to be said about not talking about it as a way to seek relief. Helping kids find that right balance will make a big difference.
UNICEF: On distractions, it’s going to be tempting for a lot of teenagers to bury themselves in screens right now. How can parents and teenagers best handle that?
Dr. Damour: I would be very up front with a teenager and say, “Okay, you and I both know you’ve got a heck of a lot of time on your hands, but you and I both know that it’s not going to be a good idea to have unfettered access to screens and/or social media. That’s not healthy, that’s not smart and it may amplify your anxiety. We really don’t think you having a social media free-for-all is a good idea under any condition. So the fact that you’re not in school and your time isn’t being taken up by classes doesn’t necessarily mean that all of that time should be replaced with social media.” But I think you just say that in a very up-front way which acknowledges that, naturally, there’s no way that the time spent in school will be entirely replaced with being online.
And then ask the teenager, “How should we handle this? What should our plans be? What do you propose in this new normal or new short-term normal. Your time is no longer structured in the ways you’re accustomed to, come up with a structure and show me the structure that you have in mind, and then we can think it through together.”
UNICEF: Is structure key to maintaining a sense of normalcy?
Dr. Damour: Kids need structure. Full stop. And what we’re all having to do, very quickly, is invent entirely new structures to get every one of us through our days. And so I would strongly recommend that parents make sure that there’s a schedule for the day, that there’s a plan for how time will be spent — and that can include playtime where kids can get on their phones and connect with their friends, which of course they’re going to want to do. But it also should have technology-free time, time set aside to help with making dinner, time to go outside. If you can be outside you should. We need to think about what we value and we need to build a structure that reflects that, and it will be a great relief to our kids to have a sense of a predictable day and a sense of when they’re supposed to be working and when they get to play.
I would say for kids under the age of 10 or 11, the parent should come up with a structure and then negotiate from there with their child and see if there’s any feedback that makes good sense.
For children 10 and 11 or older, I would ask the child to design it — and give them a sense of the kinds of things that should be part of that structure, and then work with what they create.
UNICEF: What tips would you give parents who are building a structure for younger children?
Dr. Damour: I think we have to recognize that younger kids actually do sit in class for periods of the day and tolerate the interruptions and annoyances of a lot of kids around them, and they won’t have to tolerate those when they’re at home. Which is to say that I don’t think we should underestimate their ability to work in a focused way from home.
That said, every family knows their child best and it may be ideal, depending on who is supervising them (I realize that not every parent is going to be home to do this), to structure their day so that all of those things that need to get done get done before anything else happens: All of their schoolwork, all of their chores, all of their have-to-do activities versus get-to-do activities. For some families, doing that at the start of the day will work best for kids.
Other families may find that it works well to start the day a little bit later, to sleep in, to enjoy a longer breakfast together, and then get rolling at 10 or 11 in the morning. Every family gets to do it their own way. I also want to add something that some people may be reluctant to voice: We’re stuck with this, so to the degree you can enjoy it — you should. If this means you’re making pancakes as a family for breakfast and that is something that was never a possibility on a normal school day and that’s something that makes everybody happy, enjoy that.
Here’s the bottom line: Kids need predictability — as much predictability as you can offer in a situation like this. So don’t wake up every day and figure out the schedule. Try a schedule, or maybe try a provisional one for a week as a family and then review it at the end of the week.
“We should remember that they are the passengers in this and we are driving the car.”
UNICEF: How important is a parent’s own behaviour in a time of crisis?
Dr. Damour: Parents, of course, are anxious too and our kids know us better than we know ourselves. They will take emotional cues from us. I would ask parents to do what they can to manage their anxiety on their own time – to not overshare their fears with their children. That may mean containing emotions, which may be hard for parents at times especially if they’re feeling those emotions pretty intensely. I would want for parents to find an outlet for their anxiety that’s not their children. We should remember that they are the passengers in this and we are driving the car. And so even if we’re feeling anxious, which of course we will be, we can’t let that get in the way of them feeling like safe passengers in our car.
UNICEF: Should parents ask their children how they’re feeling on a regular basis or does that bring up more feelings of anxiety?
Dr. Damour: I think it depends on the kid. Some kids really keep to themselves and so it may be valuable for a parent to say, “How are you doing?” or “What are you hearing?” Other kids are going to be talking and talking and talking about it. The way we want to approach these things is to find a good balance between expression and containment. You want some expression and feeling, especially at a time when we should expect kids to have some pretty intense feelings, but you also want those emotions to feel contained. So if your kid is high on expression, you’re going to work on containment, if your kid is high on containment you’re going to help them with a little bit of expression.
UNICEF: Children may worry about catching the virus, but not feel comfortable speaking to their parents about it. How should parents approach the topic with them?
Dr. Damour: Parents should have a calm, proactive conversation with their children about the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), and the important role children can play in keeping themselves healthy. Let them know that it is possible that [you or your children] might start to feel symptoms at some point, which are often very similar to the common cold or flu, and that they do not need to feel unduly frightened of this possibility. Parents should encourage their kids to let them know if they’re not feeling well, or if they are feeling worried about the virus so that the parents can be of help.
Adults can empathize with the fact that children are feeling understandably nervous and worried about COVID-19. Reassure your children that illness due to COVID-19 infection is generally mild, especially for children and young adults. It’s also important to remember that many of the symptoms of COVID-19 can be treated. From there, we can remind them that there are many effective things we can do to keep ourselves and others safe and to feel in better control of our circumstances: frequently wash our hands, don’t touch our faces and engage in social distancing.