In accepting the public plea to physically distance themselves from the rest of society, Utah families are finding themselves physically closer than they might prefer, especially for parents who thought they had a few more months before summer break. But learning to thrive in such a close-quarter environment is vital, not just for the productivity of working parents but for the mental well-being of shuttered-in students.
We sense that school-aged children, particularly teenagers, are nailing the electronic communication aspect of social distancing. They already have vast networks of friends with whom they can socialize through text or video chat.
What’s missing is the face-to-face component, says Jenny Howe, a licensed therapist who works with anxious and depressed teens. “They are recognizing that they need that in-person energy in order to feel connected to people.”
And why wouldn’t they? They spend six hours each weekday learning, laughing, eating and socializing with peers. Take that away, and a phone becomes a sorry substitute for a gaggle of friends in the lunchroom.
Helping teens maintain their mental health ought to be as important as hand-washing and wiping down the doorknobs.
Keeping a schedule is paramount. Students have nearly every minute of their school day planned, and they should feel a sense of routine as they move through their days at home. But for many parents, “when stressful times come up, (schedules) are the first things to go,” according to Blake Jones, an assistant professor of psychology at BYU who studies the effect of daily routines on the health of children.
Howe recommends writing out a daily schedule and giving children options of how to spend their time while avoiding absolute rigidity. Keep mealtimes consistent, and help kids feel connected to the family by encouraging chores or helping out family members.
Talking — in person — is also important for children, and this may be the best opportunity for parents to have difficult discussions with their kids, suggests Howe. Parents can invite their teens to share feelings of busyness, worry, fear or anxiety. They can meet their kids where they are and show support, love and concern.
But conversation, however necessary, shouldn’t encroach on the urge to be still. “I don’t think that people need to be with their kids 100% of the time right now,” says Howe. “That’s not an attainable goal.”
Being around mom and dad all day, every day, can be more stressful than a parent might realize. Finding a balance between family time and personal time is mentally beneficial for all parties involved.
Perhaps the current arrangement is not ideal, but that shouldn’t mean emotional fitness takes a back seat to family squabbles. Keeping everyone healthy — physically and mentally — is the goal right now.