By Lynette Imdieke-Struzyk,
M.S., L.P.C.C., Psychotherapist
When I think of coping well with any sort of forced dramatic change in lifestyle, and the potential traumatic effects of our current pandemic, the first thing I think of is Mr. Rogers retelling what his mother often told him: When there is something new, scary, or difficult – such as this current pandemic – one should focus on or “look for the helpers.” What that means is, simply, to listen and learn from our helpers who can teach us to be safe and give us hope for the future; and, hopefully, we also learn to become helpers in our communities.
How does one learn to become a helper? Well, we teach our children to tell us and talk about the things they have heard and that frighten them. All too often what was heard, and their interpretations, is very different from actual facts. Parents need to keep a cool head, limit the constant barrage of news, and be honest about how scary things may seem and feel. Adults all need to feel safe as well; however, be careful to not let your fears as a parent project onto your children. Let children know they can talk to you about anything, and that you will do all you can to keep them safe, in any scary situation.
It’s important that children have an adult close by when they hear or see frightening things, so limit the news and TV without adults close by. Share with your children how you feel about different things happening in our world, and teach them how to talk and play out their feelings and fears, instead of hurting someone else when they get scared or angry. Remember, all behavior – good or bad – has a purpose, so look to understand its purpose if your child can’t verbalize it to you just yet.
Watch how others cope with this pandemic stress, and look for ways that feel right for you and your family. Maybe that’s watching the news together and discussing, and maybe it’s going for a walk outside, or playing a game, finding a way to help someone in need, or simply giving a warm hug.
Mr. Rogers also taught us, no matter what our particular job may be, we are all called to be
“tikkun olun” or repairers of creation. In other words, we can focus on what we can do to improve our society, and find ways to care for others. By focusing on what things we can do to be helpful to others, we are becoming and teaching our children to become “the helpers of the future.” We can also learn to use our words to express our feelings in ways that bring healing, joy, hope, and faith into our neighborhoods. Many of us would agree today with Mr. Rogers in saying, ”Anyone who does anything to help another person is a hero to me.”
In our fast-paced western society, many of us have been raised to be involved and always on the move, with activities filling most of our free time. This current COVID-19 virus threat has forced us to stop and “hunker down” as a family, to stop all the activities and programs, and to reconnect as a family and prioritize each other. When the world seems scary, I think we all need some basics, like feeling safe, loved, and important to one another. There could not be a better time than now to make sure we share with our loved ones how important they are to us. Reach out to our neighbors and community in creative ways to “pay it forward” and be thoughtful and helpful. There is no better way to lift us out of our depression or anxiety than to repeatedly share our gratitude to others, and find new ways each day to be kinder, more respectful, and have the opportunity to make this a time of quality family connections once again.
This sounds good, but what about too much family bonding becoming the source of increased stress: Adjusting to the challenges of working from home, with children home, homework to be done, and everyone getting on each other’s nerves, day after day? The single most helpful idea is to develop together your family’s daily structure and schedule, with clear expectations surrounding when you will be able to help versus when you won’t. No need to become obsessed with precision of following the schedule, but rather use it as a guideline for setting the family home routine and clearly stated expectations for everyone. Include work, play, homework, exercise, regular hygiene, and time for good nutrition. Prioritize health and safety as it relates to skills to prevent the spread of the virus. Set up spaces for homework and work as well as quiet time, and keep bedtimes and risings consistent but flexible. We all need to learn to be flexible, and be willing to make changes and adjustments and do things a bit differently from day to day. As you navigate your new routines, try to cultivate patience, practice empathy, and keep your sense of humor.
Use our new technology to find free online learning opportunities and virtual tours. Yale University is offering classes at a discount, and Harvard is hosting a thriving-at-home series, as does Khan Academy for most high school work. Look for collaborative neighborhood projects and other ways to creatively reach and connect during this time of social isolation.
We are all empowered when we learn and practice skills like washing our hands often and covering coughs to protect the virus from spreading. We need to trust in our healthcare professionals to take care of people, and scientists to develop treatments and prevention strategies. Remember, the CDC is the most up-to-date information source.
Lastly, consider what mental health help that you or anyone in your family may need during these challenging times. Know that we can do many things to keep our minds, bodies, and spirits healthy. Most psychologists and mental health therapists now offer Teletherapy or Telemedicine, that your insurance will cover in response to the coronavirus crisis. Telephone, tablet, or computer can be used instead of in-office visits. Remember, there also are on-line support groups, mental health hotlines, and domestic assault centers that are just a phone call away.
This COVID-19 pandemic has without a doubt created many challenges; however, it can also be a fabulous opportunity to refocus your priorities and values, and to reconnect with nature, find new meaning in your family and work, and connect with the people who truly are important to you.