How Families Can Boost Kids’ Mental Health During the Pandemic
By Erika Bocknek
The choice between in-person learning, where available, and remote learning is a fraught one for parents. Children experience joy and connection when they learn alongside other kids, but they risk being exposed to the coronavirus. Remote learning at home can protect kids from COVID-19, but does it set back their social-emotional development?
The choice between mental or physical health might feel stark. But as a family therapist and professor of educational psychology who studies resilience in families under stress, I can assure you that no single schooling option guarantees a happy, healthy kid or dooms a child to despair.
In fact, much more than schooling context, children's mental health relies on high-quality relationships within families.
Spending time with other children can benefit children's mental health, though it's not clear that group settings are necessary to achieve those gains. Some research from before the pandemic found that home-schooled children experience more academic success and better mental health than kids in school, especially when families maintain ties to religious institutions and community groups. Other studies show no differences or suggest that home-schooled children fall behind their peers. And of course processes within schools during the pandemic will change how children interact.
No matter what the schooling situation, four key components belong in a child's mental health toolkit. The good news is that parents can support all of these areas as part of in-person, remote, or small-pod learning.
Connecting Mind and Body: 'What I Need'
Mental health and physical health are inextricably linked. Physical activity, good nutrition, and sleep are all crucial for both. Children need clear bedtime routines and a consistent schedule — especially during times of unease such as now. Children need to go to bed at a similar time each evening and wake up at a similar time each morning.
This guidance applies across ages. Though it's normal for sleep schedules to shift in adolescence, consistency remains critical. Research increasingly shows that poor sleep hygiene is a central issue in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.
Developing Identity: 'Who I Am'
Children of all ages incorporate information from both family members and peers into their sense of identity.
School exposes students to others with similar and different viewpoints or backgrounds and lets them confront social rules. Research with home-schooled children shows that interacting with other home-schooled kids is good for their mental health. Peer relationships, especially in adolescence, are related to self-esteem. Overall, positive peer relationships throughout childhood can help students adjust in school, while bad experiences leave the strongest mark on mental health.
But kids' empathy and pro-social behaviors, such as helping someone in need — characteristics they largely learn in their families — help them build and maintain their friendships. If you're worried about kids being isolated while learning remotely, remember that parent-child attachment is the most important source of self-esteem and a positive sense of self for children.
Focusing on reciprocity is one way families can help kids explore identity. Parents should ask open-ended questions and show curiosity about children's opinions and interests. Family rituals, such as a special weekly dinner, family game night, or a loving bedtime ritual, can support family bonding and help children gain a strong sense of self, contributing to better mental health. Parents can try to engage in 20 minutes of joyful, focused interaction with their kids each day and consistently observe and promote their children's positive attributes.
Regulating Emotions: 'How I Feel'
Skills that allow children to understand their emotions and make choices about how they respond to them are crucial building blocks of good mental health. Families can practice regulating emotions with their children, supporting strategies to understand and manage frustration, anger, and sadness when those feelings become unmanageable. Experiencing joy and positive emotions supports good mental health.
Children are likely to experience complex emotions in the coming months. At school, kids may have a hard time separating from family or difficulty when confronted with new safety measures and expectations. In addition, existing school-based risk factors such as bullying may exacerbate mental health issues. Children at home may feel disconnected and pick up on stress within families facing work and income challenges. Ongoing issues in families such as parental mental health problems and family violence can also put children at risk.
When children face emotions that are unfamiliar, dysregulated behavior — which can include sleeplessness, aggression, or listlessness, for example — may be a first indicator for adults, who can provide emotion coaching. Parents can regularly check in with children to take their "feelings temperature" and suggest ways to practice coping.
Outlets for creative expression, such as art, music, and dance can support positive emotional development and coping, as well.
Recognizing Interdependence: 'Who We Are'
A big piece of good mental health is being able to see yourself as a part of a whole.
The parent-child relationship is the context in which children learn to view themselves as interdependent — a person who is connected to previous generations and present networks.
Responses to the pandemic can threaten the usual sense of community. To help make up for any isolation, whether because of remote learning or physical distancing measures, families can provide opportunities for children to consider others' feelings and practice giving and receiving emotional support.
Parents must attend to their own mental health; research shows that if parents struggle with depression, aspects of children's social-emotional development — including building empathy skills and engaging socially — can also suffer.
Challenges Abound, But the Tools Are Consistent
Kids who were vulnerable before the pandemic remain vulnerable. But mental health risk factors are largely the same for children whether in school or learning from home.
Any changes, even happy ones, can create stress. Good mental health is the ability to adapt. The strategies in this toolkit can help children adapt and cope with stress, whether because of the pandemic, economic inequities, racism, unaddressed special needs, or interpersonal problems within a family.
Some children need to be in school. They may have complex learning needs, or they might be unsafe at home, and they depend on school to buffer problems at home. But the argument that all children in general must be at school to ward off a mental health crisis is just not true. Wherever and however kids are learning this year, families can support students so they continue developing as mentally healthy individuals.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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