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Parents must learn to control pandemic stress, anxiety with children at home
Palm Beach Post - 8/10/2020
Parents and children are under stress as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and for many, their anxiety is heightened as distance learning is set to begin Aug. 31 in Palm Beach County public schools. It's uncertain when public schools might reopen for in-person classes.
We asked four local psychologists and licensed mental health counselors to weigh in with advice for families experiencing the multitude of changes in daily life caused by the pandemic. Increased time at home, social isolation, social distancing and worries about jobs and contracting the virus all add to the stress.
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Kelly Everson, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Palm Beach County and a psychologist with Palm Beach Behavioral Health and Wellness, Jupiter said, "People are hitting a wall. This has been going on for so long.
"Kids and parents were already showing difficulty managing at home. It is exponential at this point. Now they have heard school will be virtual. That was difficult for a lot of families in the spring. Parents are already anxious," Everson said. "We are definitely getting a lot of calls."
Therapy requests from adults suffering from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have doubled, Everson said.
"We are seeing spikes in anxiety and depression, especially for kids predisposed to it. We are seeing more concerns with possible suicidal behavior as well in kids who were already depressed. With younger kids we are seeing more behavior concerns, such as out-of-control acting out," Everson said.
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First, parents need to first take care of themselves and use healthful coping skills to manage their anxiety because the parents' emotions will spill over to the children. Anxiety relief can include activities such as taking a walk, stretching out on a bed or sofa, listening to music, doing yoga or other exercise, taking a shower, taking a snack break, and practicing deep breathing.
"Kids feed off the parents' anxiety. The younger the child, the more they feed off the energy itself," Everson said.
Watching the news 24/7 is not healthy for adults or children and can cause them to become more fearful or worried.
"Most people benefit from educating themselves, but there is a point where it becomes too much and it starts to affect our mood," Everson said.
Stephanie De La Cruz, clinical director and licensed mental health counselor at the Center for Child Counseling, Inc., Palm Beach Gardens agrees that even having the TV news on in the background 24/7 can be harmful.
"It's OK for adults to watch the news and keep themselves updated and communicate in an age-appropriate way what is going on. Not telling them anything at all creates uncertainty. Once a child sees an image, he or she cannot unsee it," De La Cruz said.
De La Cruz said that because of the pandemic and the lockdowns, the center is seeing clients with anxiety about school, work, financial concerns, their health and well-being and concerns about getting coronavirus.
With children being home and not in school or day care, calls are coming from parents as well as from neighbors who have noticed children wandering in the streets and other signs of neglect.
Parents can't control the pandemic, but they can try to control their thoughts and responses, and the way they interact with others in the household.
"The children are looking to the caregivers for cues. If parents can help themselves de-stress, the children are watching that. They are watching the after-effect of that. Just seeing a parent who is safe and in control provides regulation for the child," De La Cruz said.
Parents should reach out for professional help when their levels of anxiety or depression affect how they are functioning and impacting relationships with their children, spouses, or others.
"Our agency believes in prevention and early intervention, not waiting for someone to be on the brink of suicide or being Baker-acted. It is more like; do you feel you need the help now? There is no harm in speaking to someone," De La Cruz said.
Artemis Paschalis, a licensed mental health therapist based in Lake Park, suggests pinpointing what is triggering your anxiety and making a list. That list might include fear about losing your job or your kids going stir-crazy.
Then consider which things you can control and which you cannot. Think about what the problem actually is and what you can do about it. Be self-aware and intentional in your actions and ask, "Is this helpful?'
Make a list of things that make you feel good and ask yourself what you need. Maybe it's something as simple as watching a funny movie or exercising.
"I am very solution focused. It's not about focusing on what we don't have necessarily. You should grieve your losses right now. Try to practice gratitude, Paschalis said. "When you start drinking the negative Kool-aide, it is easy to go down that rabbit hole.
"It is very important to expect this is your new normal," Paschalis said. "So many people are literally sitting on their feelings. It's like sitting under the eye of a hurricane and the eye is not moving. There is nothing constructive about it. It is important to stop and not be on autopilot."
Diane Kelly Andreou, clinical psychologist and director, Boys Town South Florida Behavioral Health Clinic, West Palm Beach, said, "When there is a pandemic or something like this, it is natural to feel worried or anxious. It is very important for parents to take care of themselves to be the most effective they can be."
Parents need to validate their children's emotions. Ask kids and teens what they have heard or seen about COVID-19 and have a conversation about reliable sources. Let them know it is natural to be fearful.
"Let kids ask their questions so you can have an open, honest conversation. It is important to be fact-based and age-appropriate. You don't need to go into all the medical details with a six-year-old. You can say, 'There is a lot of sickness out there. We are doing everything to keep everybody safe. That is why school is closed,'" Andreou said.
For some children and teens, distance learning is a relief because they have had a difficult time at school socially and find they like learning at their own pace. Others miss their friends and being at school and are looking forward to the day schools reopen.
Routines make kids feel safe and organized, and routines help adults also.
"We want to model positive behavior and coping. If parents are taking care of themselves, if parents are not using their phone all the time, that is a powerful message. It's about being mindful, taking things one day at a time and not letting anxiety take over," Andreou said.
Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County offers parenting advice and additional COVID-19 resources at everyparentpbc.org. There's also a free EveryParent app.
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