By Phyllis L. Fagell, CNN
While a seventh grade boy taught an eighth grade boy how to start a row of knitting, a seventh grade girl put the finishing touches on her knitting bunny and a diverse group of middle school kids flocked to a room. class in Washington, DC, for a knitting club.
As the pandemic continues, the club – founded by school teachers Sheridan Christine Heiler and Laura Nakatani – is attracting more and more students who find that they benefit from starting their day with a meditative activity alongside calm and warm adults.
As a counselor at Sheridan School, I recognize that creative interventions such as the knitting club can help strengthen student well-being during this difficult time. Symptoms of anxiety and depression in children have doubled, and the US Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics have called the current state of children’s mental health a crisis. Communities experience a shortage of pediatric mental health providers and few schools have adequate resources to meet the growing needs of children.
“My stomach is worried so much that it hurts”
Our children need help, but they don’t get it often. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250 to 1, but the ratio in 2019-2020 was 424 to 1. Meanwhile, only 40% of US schools have a dedicated RN, which is equally problematic, as emotionally distressed children often show physical symptoms and visit the health room rather than a counselor. Recently the nurse accompanied a young student to my office after he handed her a note that said, “My stomach is worried so much that it hurts.”
Now the children are returning from winter vacation after two years of uncertainty amid an increase in Covid-19 cases, spurred by the Omicron variant. While some school districts have already made the switch to distance learning, students in other districts may be concerned about potential school closures. More children could still be scared after the Oxford, Michigan high school shooting. Limited resources are a significant barrier to supporting these students, but the greatest constraint may be the emotional well-being of the adults who raise, educate and work with them.
In a recent study on risk and resilience among more than 14,000 middle and high school students from 49 schools, psychologist Suniya Luthar found that parental support is the most important variable in each ethnic group. Luthar is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit AC Groups and professor emeritus at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“There is no stronger protective factor for children than the mental health of their primary caregiver,” she said, referring to the National Academies of Sciences’ 2019 Vibrant and Healthy Kids report, Engineering and Medicine and his own research.
“We know from decades of research that when parents are unhappy or very distressed it inevitably affects their parenting behaviors negatively, so it behooves us as a society to figure out how to provide ongoing and sustained support to those who are raise the next generation. . “
Here are five ways adults can help themselves and their dependent children.
1. Self-care isn’t just for your benefit
If it’s hard for you to prioritize taking care of yourself, rephrase it as something you do to help your child. Decades of resilience research have shown that a child’s well-being is tied to that of its parents, and this can be especially true for fathers. According to a September 2021 study published in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development, the impact of fathers’ symptoms of depression on perceived stress in children may be stronger than the effects reported by mothers.
2. Discuss important topics regularly with at least one contact person
Identify a person or two in your life who make you feel psychologically safe. As Luthar said, “Parents must have other people on hand who will put on their oxygen masks for them, because we as adults can also seek air.”
Then name it with them. “Say, ‘Will you be my go-to person?’ So that you both feel more responsible for keeping it up. talk about things that are important to you, ”said Luthar.
3. Help your child get the help they need, even if it isn’t you
Find out what your child needs. Is this information? Someone else to carry their fears or worries? Practical help for connecting with friends?
It’s okay if you don’t feel equipped to support your child on your own. Ask them who they feel close to and who makes them comfortable, such as an aunt, cousin, or neighbor, then prioritize ongoing relationships with that person.
Schools can take a similar approach by asking students to name two or three adults they feel close to in this setting and then pair them.
“It could be the soccer coach, the orchestra teacher, the biology teacher or the receptionist at the front desk,” Luthar said, adding that schools should determine which adults are frequently named. They should also help them, she noted, “by delineating a protected time where their only task is to be available for recordings with the students.”
4. Look for support groups for children and for adults.
I run “Worrybusters” groups in my school to teach children coping skills and normalize their concerns. It’s powerful for them to connect with peers who struggle in the same way whether they meet formally or informally. In fact, a few members of one of my groups came after Thanksgiving to report that they had an impromptu “meeting” in a student’s yard during the break.
Adults also benefit from structured group support. For example, Luthar offers adult groups including parents, educators and clinicians through AC groups. Mental Health Outreach for Mothers (MOMS for short) – founded by Megan Smith, director of the Yale Child Study Center’s Parent and Family Development Program – offers groups designed to improve the mental health of low-income mothers. .
5. Throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks
To keep the kids from getting discouraged, I tell them that the first intervention we try may not work, and that’s okay. At a time when the variables and variants of the coronavirus keep changing, staying flexible is crucial to finding effective strategies.
Don’t be afraid to face out loud. Let your child hear you have hope, even if the first thing you try doesn’t work. The contagion of emotions is real and, as Luthar pointed out, “parents should be calm, loving and relaxed – or at the very least, not unhappy either.”
If in doubt, stop talking and just listen. Students often say how much they dislike when parents tell them how they feel. In other words, you and your child have many of the same needs.
“Just as children need continuous, unconditional support to deal with relentlessly high levels of stress, we adults need exactly the same,” said Luthar. “Who doesn’t need love, and who doesn’t need more love at this point in history, when humanity has been collectively traumatized.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the association through which Suniya Luthar offers adult support groups.