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Parents can support their family’s emotional health—here’s how

Rebecca Rutledge, FNP

It’s difficult to enjoy good physical health without good emotional health—a truth that the coronavirus is underscoring. In my practice, a significant number of patients are reporting increased anxiety and depression. They are having a harder time managing their blood sugar and high blood pressure and are dealing with gastrointestinal upset. Sleep has become problematic for adults and kids alike.

Worries about getting sick, finding child care, educating kids, and losing a job, along with increased isolation, are fueling the stress. Families are locked in a difficult situation until the nation can get a handle on the virus.

During these times, I think it’s valuable for patients to focus on the things they can control. Parents in particular set the tone for their families and can have a big impact on how stress is experienced. While there is no one single thing families can do, I believe there are some tactics they can use to thrive in uncertainty. If you are a parent, see if these ideas will work for you:

Find your purpose

When you are focused on your goals it can boost your mood and reduce stress. Try to spend time talking with your kids and partner about priorities. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What brings you joy? Identify those things then find ways to simplify so you can focus on what really matters.

For some families, their faith might be critical to their purpose. For others, it might be service. In my household family is a priority. We value togetherness and our relationships with each other. One of the ways we show this is with appreciation boards, which are just simple white boards attached to the refrigerator. Everyone writes positive messages on them: “I appreciate that you snuggled me,” or “Thank you for picking up your room.” It really makes you feel good to see all the affirmations.

Reach out to your support system

Families need to understand that they are not alone. While many people are in physical isolation, they aren’t in isolation in terms of what they are dealing with. I think it’s important for people to reach out to others who they can be real with. Some online communities can create stress instead of relieving it. Try to focus on those relationships where you can be transparent with each other, and where you’ve already build emotional and spiritual trust.

Help kids connect with family and close friends too. The same technology that moms use for neighborhood happy hours can allow kids to have a Lego build off. Two kids can both cook the same recipe but in different homes. You can also look for ways to support peer interaction while social distancing. For example, bike riding could be a good option.

Stick to a routine

One of the things I’ve noticed is that a loss of consistency can masquerade as a mental health problem. Parents have come into the clinic concerned about a child’s eating disorder, sluggish behavior, or depression. However, it’s really a lack of a schedule that’s the root of the problem. Putting kids back on a routine that ensures they eat healthy meals instead of snacks and get quality sleep often resolves the issue. Many kids aren’t adept at self-management and need their parents to stay actively involved, even when they’re juggling working from home.

Get creative with family activities

More time together means more opportunities to have fun together. My kids and I swapped bedrooms to mix things up. We’ve also done a backyard campout with a tent and s’mores. We’ve added in more family bike rides and hikes, gone paddle boarding, and spent a lot of time swimming. My kids have also gotten more involved with meal planning and cooking, and we’ve stepped up their responsibility when it comes to laundry and personal hygiene.

You can focus on activities that your family loves. Maybe game nights, family movie nights, or water balloon fights will resonate. If you’ve ever considered getting a pet, now is great time because everyone can be involved with its care. Fewer sports and activities mean you have time to include kids in household chores and maintenance. Being home more can have lots of benefits.

Practice grace and gratitude

Take away the idea that you have to be perfect and accomplish it all. Wake up every day with the intent to simply do the very best you can. And focus on gratitude. No matter what there is always something you and your family can be grateful for during the day. If there’s an antidote for negativity, it’s gratitude. When external stressors come at you, if you can keep the good in your life in mind, you will feel and be more resilient.

Rebecca Rutledge is a family nurse practitioner at Vancouver Clinic. She has a passion for health and wellness and enjoys being able to share her enthusiasm and knowledge with her patients.