Any other September, plans for going back to school are in full swing. Fall sports teams are on the high school fields. It’s time to shop for new clothes and fresh supplies of markers, notebooks, binders and backpacks are the order of the day. But 2020 is not any other year and the normal school year is not what is on the schedule.
“We are figuring this out as we go forward,” said Dr. Jenys Allende Executive Director for Mental and Health Staffing at Legacy Treatment Services. “There is no play book for a pandemic.”
Know the Stressors
Dr. Allende is both a psychiatrist and a mother of two school age children and like so many families around the country, dealing with virtual learning, working from home, keeping the family connected and finding time for family meals and to enjoy being a family.
“We know this crisis is really affecting families and creating new levels of stress,” said Dr. Allende. “We know mothers and fathers are wearing multiple hats as they cover taking care of their kids, handling the chores, and working from home. For those with school-age children, they are trying to manage virtual learning as well.
“The shift to working from home brings with it other factors. The flexibility of working from home can also mean working more hours than one would in a traditional office and answering emails late at night. It is like there is no break from work.”
She explained that for many families who were just trying to get along and going with the “you will figure it out” plan have been hit hard during the Covid-19 pandemic. “It is great for families to be together but family members also need to be able to find a space for quiet time,” Allende said. “With no end in sight and parents struggling with trying to find childcare, the pandemic is really putting a lot of pressures on families.”
Dr. Allende added that the lack of connection with other friends and families during the pandemic is stressful; even not having a set schedule can affect children and adults as well. “Children, just like many adults, are creatures of routine and when those routines are interrupted, they are off,” said Dr. Allende. “This could show up in different ways such as children having trouble sleeping, which throws off their whole schedule.”
Legacy Treatment Services Therapist Daniel Blank, who works with children and their families, said that he is trying to help them navigate the current landscape.
“I see kids struggling with the isolation of being kept away from their friends,” Blank said. “I am talking with kids who did not do well learning online in the spring and now, as they are preparing for the school year to start. This is creating anxiety for the kids and for their parents. There is anxiety and fear about contracting Covid-19, about not being able to be together and there is also stress relative to online learning.
“Some kids just did not do well learning virtually; they were tempted to do other things while they were online and found themselves falling behind in their school work. As a result, catching up became difficult. There are others who may be afraid to speak up when they may not understand something in an online group setting and it contributes to them falling behind.”
Blank said there are many contributing factors to families shouldering a lot of stress right now that is related to the pandemic and people being at home. With so many businesses shut down, employees have been furloughed or lost their jobs and their insurance coverage as well. It is a stressful time in many families. “We know parents are trying to do right by their kids and their family but certainly there are plenty of meltdowns happening on both sides,” he added.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges that fear and anxiety over the pandemic can be overwhelming and trigger increased stress. Some of the obvious signs of stress and anxiety include changes in eating and sleeping habits, difficulty concentrating or trouble falling asleep at night. There can be changes or worsening of existing health conditions.
The CDC advice is to deal with stress in a healthy manner to help your family as well as your community. Get plenty of exercise, get ample sleep, eat healthy foods, stay connected to community or faith-based organizations, while observing socially-distanced measures and taking time away from the news.
This pandemic has led to an extended time of isolation for some individuals and families who may have already been struggling. Dr. Allende said that the numbers of reported child abuse cases statewide has dropped dramatically. However, she added that those numbers may not be indicative of the truth.
“While the numbers of reported cases of child abuse are down, we do not feel that those decreased numbers are a true reflection of what is going on in homes around the country,” Dr. Allende said.
Most referrals to the state Department of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly DYFS) are down, but Dr. Allende pointed out that most referrals come through the schools and pediatricians offices. With school not in session and many families contacting their physicians virtually, those important inflection points that pick up any signs of trouble in the home are not there right now.
Dr. Allende pointed to statistics indicating more teens are struggling with thoughts of suicide. “Previously, roughly 11% of teens questioned said they had suicidal thoughts at some point but recent data said that number has jumped to 25% since the start of the pandemic,” said Dr. Allende. “Clearly, teens are struggling through this time as well.”
Blank said he is working with families and hoping to tweak parenting skills using the Nurtured-Heart Approach that puts the focus on positive behaviors and takes away energy from the negative behaviors.
“We tell parents to talk about things with their family, praise positive behaviors and ignore the negative as a means of changing behavior patterns,” said Blank.
He acknowledges that follow-through and establishing consequences are important and suggests praise as a reward for kids completing their school work. “I tell clients, lead with the positive and hold the negative in reserve,” he added.
One of the things Blank said he does to help families is to connect them with community service to combat some of the issues that are creating anxiety and stress. Legacy Treatment Services has social workers on staff that will connect families with the county workforce agency, Catholic Charities, for rent assistance, as well as various family success centers where they can look for insurance.
“We are trying to prepare our families that the end is not in sight yet, but we can work together to get through this unusual time,” concluded Blank.
Bad Coronavirus Days
Dr. Allende said it is important for individuals to realize that during this pandemic we are in uncharted waters and there are days that things will not go as planned.
“Sometimes you begin the day with a clear set of plans and goals but things, for one reason or another, do not go your way,” she said. “It is not the end of the world - talk about it and then chalk it up to a ‘Bad Coronavirus Day’ and move forward. There are things that are sometimes just don’t work out and whether it is related to work or home related, it is ok not to be happy about it. Don’t beat yourself up about it either.”
Dr. Allende added, “During this pandemic, while we practice social distancing, we have to find a way to connect, as it literally can be lifesaving. Isolation can affect anyone and it has the potential to pervade every part of your life. Be flexible, communicate, do a Zoom chat, reward the kids by letting them play video games with friends and stay connected.”
For more information on Legacy Treatment Services, or to set up a teleconference with a counselor, visit www.legacytreatment.org or call 800-433-7365.