Many families have been struggling to find their emotional footing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a recent online interactive webinar, “Peas in a Pod: Mental Wellness for the Entire Family,” Weill Cornell Medicine brought together a WCM psychiatrist and two clinical psychologists to discuss how families can improve their mental wellness together.
“One of the things that I've noticed is that…those who really effectively communicate with each other do a lot better,” said Susan Evans, Ph.D., professor of psychology in clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and Cornell University. “Families who do well are able to basically stop and hear what the other person is saying…are in a better position to problem solve with each other. And often what I see is them coming up with some sort of compromise.”
“Sometimes the families who are…keeping track of what each person is doing--‘I did 70% of the childcare this week and so you owe me,’ kind of thing. It’s resentment built up. [Take] the other person's perspective,” Dr. Evans said.
“Interactions with peers is one of the core tasks of adolescent development,” said Shannon Bennett, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine.
“Social distancing and quarantine and schools closing and the limits to how we can engage with others is an enormous stressor…but particularly for teenagers who miss seeing their friends, they feel frustrated.”
“Mindfulness can be really a very helpful tool because what you're doing is focusing and just practicing being in the present moment. [It’s] a useful family practice during this time where the parents are practicing and then practicing with their children and the kids can use it--a transition before classes start in the morning or at lunchtime,” Dr. Bennett said, adding that apps such as Calm and Headspace also may be useful.
Francis Lee, MD, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University, discussed a new symptom tracker for young adults to allow them to digitally monitor their own symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, sleep, and social isolation. Encouraging this allows patients to “sort of now shift the responsibility….You're responsible for your own mental health and you get to, in an anonymous, confidential way, be able to monitor it.”
Dr. Evans has started to suggest roaming to some patients who feel stuck at home. “It's hard to, in some neighborhoods, roam around. But those that I've talked to about it have found it very appealing….And I think all agree that this experiential novelty, just moving into different neighborhoods or having different experiences really contributes to wellbeing.”
“We all thrive on predictability and consistency--but particularly youth,” Dr. Bennett said. “Young people who struggle around transitions or who like to know what the next thing is, we want to have a variety of activities and then embed that in a structure for the day or for the week….We kind of communicate as a family about what's coming up so that we can all kind of be at our best.”
It can be difficult to maintain children’s friendships, particularly when different families practice different levels of social distancing, Dr. Bennett said.
“If this is a friend who's very important in one's life or in your child's life, then communicating with the parents--‘These are our practices and this is the way that we've been thinking about risk and safety within our family. Tell me about yours and can we come up with something that feels comfortable for everyone.’
“We have to take care of ourselves in whatever way that we can, even if it is a five-minute break,” Dr. Bennett explained, and added, “We can just be tuned into our own needs as parents, and then be better able to meet the needs of our families,” she said.
It can help for parents to have a physical space in the home for work (even in a studio apartment). It’s also important talk to kids about boundaries so parents can have some moments for themselves, Dr. Bennett said.
“We have been able to provide for the first time, mental services not only for the children in the clinics, but also for the families,” Dr. Lee said of Weill Cornell Medicine’s mental health options, and added that WCM has developed “integrative ways that we've been coming up with of trying to deal with especially these families that are under particular stress.”
“People are resilient, kids are very resilient, we're adaptable, we can be flexible,” Dr. Bennett said. “We can work together and move through this certainly with stress and strong emotion and some struggle. But with strength and openness and communication…we [can] continue to pay attention to how we're doing and take care of ourselves and take care of each other.”
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