Katherine Reynolds Lewis
THE WASHINGTON POST – The coronavirus pandemic has affected the mental health of children and teens, and therapists are tapped out and booked up. But that doesn’t mean care is impossible. In fact, caregivers can learn therapeutic strategies to support, reinforce and teach our children healthy coping skills.
Experts point to five key skills you can develop that will support your child during a crisis, supplement therapy once it’s underway and continue to improve your family’s mental health for years to come.
“Our job is being a proactive parent and taking initiative,” said Mary Alvord, a Rockville, Md-based psychologist and co-author of Conquer Negative Thinking. “Even with suicidal kids, a little bit of intervention can go a long way. Avoidance and ignoring is not going to get you anywhere.”
Alvord and others suggested learning these mainstays of therapeutic practice.
SKILL 1: ATTUNING
In our busy lives, it’s easy to listen absently to our children or to bark orders. Attuning helps us notice when children need a deeper level of attention. It strengthens our relationship with our kids and helps them better understand themselves and their feelings.
When children’s routines shift or they come into the room in a huff, that’s a signal for you to dig deeper. Describe what you see, and invite them to share. You might say: “I noticed you’re spending more time in your room. I’m wondering if you’re upset about something”.
Offering a guess can help them get started, both in processing their emotions and in sharing them, said Meag-gan O’Reilly, a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University.
One of the most powerful tools, reflective listening, can also be the most challenging to deploy. It involves three steps: listening closely, paraphrasing what you hear and inviting your child to correct your understanding. It’s important to be sincere, use eye contact, get at their level and put away distractions. Don’t offer opinions or advice; just seek to understand. Phrases such as, “I’m hearing you say”, and, “Let me see if I have this right”, can help. For example, when a child is upset over bad grades, parents can listen reflectively instead of telling the child to study more. That leaves space for children to process their emotions, consider how their choices led to the outcome and decide how to move forward.
Know that you may hear answers that alarm or upset you. This is when it’s crucial to validate your child’s perspective. If you dismiss their feelings or try to talk them out of it, they’ll shut down or argue. “Parents are driven to fix things and give kids the answer,” Alvord said. “That’s not how we learn.”
That doesn’t mean you need to agree. Maybe your daughter says she looks ugly in her yearbook photo, said Pat Harvey, an author and clinical social worker based in Rockville, Md. If you insist that she looks beautiful, she may feel invalidated. Instead, you could say: “I get that you’re disappointed in how your pictures look. I happen to like them; I can understand that you don’t”.
“You have to touch your kid’s pain and disappointment, and none of us want to do that,” Harvey said. When you acknowledge your child’s pain, it actually lessens their struggle and opens a path to behaviour change. “We only listen when we feel heard,” she noted.
SKILL 2: EMOTIONAL LITERACY
When parents build emotional literacy, they help their children understand their own feelings. Part of that is connecting body sensations with emotions, Alvord said. Your fourth-grader’s stomach ache could be related to swimming tryouts. Teens’ headaches might be from holding school stress on their shoulders. “We know the mind and body are connected,” Alvord said, explaining that cognitive behavioural therapy connects feelings, physiology and thoughts to change behaviour.
Know that all emotions are okay, even the unpleasant ones. Naming the emotion helps tame it, a strategy coined by authors Daniel J Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. As children tune in to their emotions, they get better at managing them – and at predicting how they will feel.
One study by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence involved high-schoolers tracking their emotions and behaviour, with a surprising result about posting Photoshopped pictures to social media. “The anticipation was, ‘I’m going to feel more beautiful and more attractive,’ but in the end, they actually felt worse,” said Marc Brackett, author of Permission to Feel and director of the centre, which helped create a free emotion-tracking app called How We Feel. “We all have to become emotion scientists, and that includes being self-aware and giving ourselves the permission to feel all emotions.”
Skill 3: Self-regulation
One of the hardest parenting skills to develop is self-regulation, especially in the face of your child being angry or upset. A key is to breathe intentionally. “Take a deep breath and hold your breath for the count of 10,” Alvord said. “It’s amazing how effective that can be.”
Harvey encourages her parent clients to text her when they feel overwhelmed with emotions in a difficult moment with their children. Sometimes she coaches them by text about what to say, but even when she’s not available, pausing to text helps them respond more skillfully.
“In texting me, they’ve taken themselves out of the emotionality,” she said. “They’ve thought about it differently.”
You should model self-regulation to your children. Maybe you had a difficult day and head out for a walk. Explain what you’re doing, O’Reilly said. “They’ll hear walking is a way we can attend to stress,” she said. “Telegraphing your internal process externally really gives them cues.”
SKILL 4: SELF-COMPASSION
Self-compassion involves more than just cutting yourself a break. There are three defined steps: Acknowledge that you are experiencing pain and be kind to yourself; recognise that you’re not alone; and put your experiences in perspective to moderate your own negative reactivity.
Studies have shown that self-compassion increases well-being, lowers anxiety and depression, and can buffer against many health issues, including substance abuse, eating disorders and suicidal ideation.
Self-compassion “is like portable therapy. Any moment that’s a moment of difficulty can be transformed”, said Kristin Neff, author of Fierce Self-Compassion and a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a way of being with negative emotions or negative experiences. Are we with it with mindfulness, connectedness, kindness, warmth and support? Or are we just blaming ourselves, blaming others or railing against reality?”
Emotions are contagious. People are such social creatures that if someone’s vibrating with anxiety, we’ll probably feel on edge. Parents and children pick up on each other’s emotions – and spread them – more easily because of our close relationships.
That’s why self-compassion can be so powerful. Parents can deploy self-compassion at any high-intensity moment with children. Model self-compassion by speaking out loud, or use it silently to calm yourself. Either way, your child benefits.
If children are being hard on themselves, telling them to lighten up will probably spark resistance. Instead, talk them through the steps of self-compassion.
“It’s not just being soft, complacent or indulgent,” Neff said.
“Sometimes it’s getting your stuff together and saying: ‘What I need to care for myself is something uncomfortable that’s going to be good for me in the long run’.”
SKILL 5: REFRAMING
When you’re frustrated, it’s easy to start labelling your child, even silently. Therapists recommend reframing to open yourself to other ways of viewing the situation, which in turn helps you see positive paths forward. Avoid assumptions or judgements, and instead observe and become open to possibilities.
For example, if your child abruptly gets up to leave the table, you may interpret that as rude. Instead, consider whether your child needs quiet time, Harvey said.
“We can do a lot about behaviours. We can’t do anything when we put labels on,” she said.
“When you make assumptions, we act as if those assumptions are true, so we do all kinds of contracts and negotiations around what we think is the problem.”
Similarly, you can help children reframe by questioning assumptions. If they worry about you getting into an accident and dying, talk them through more realistic possibilities, Alvord said.
Help them find their way to optimistic thinking, which sees bad things as temporary and specific. When you’re depressed, you tend to generalise and see bad situations as unchangeable.
Ask questions such as: “What’s the worst thing that could happen? Is it always? Is it everybody? Is it going to go on forever, or is this temporary?” Alvord suggested.
Practising these five skills will build your child’s resilience. “As parents learn the skills of more effective parenting and really listening to their children, they can nurture their children emotionally, so they can be happy, motivated, empowered teens,” Alvord said.