Q&A: Supporting Your Child’s Well-Being During the Pandemic

'Don't sink the boat,' the importance of routine, and other advice for a turbulent time

woman in a blazer holding an ipad looks at the camera with a classroom behind her

Sandra Chafouleas (UConn file photo)

Nearly a year since the nation went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, just about everyone is struggling to maintain a semblance of normality. Parents of school-aged children have taken to social media and countless news stories have been written on the difficulties of balancing remote learning with remote working.

Sandra Chafouleas, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor and Neag Endowed Professor of educational psychology and founder of the Collaboratory on School and Child Health (CSCH), spoke with Julie Bartucca of the UConn 360 podcast about ways parents can support their children’s well-being during this time, as well as about how to talk to kids about the upheaval going on in the U.S.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve done some writing [on your Psychology Today blog] about how parents can support their kids. What is going on in their heads when it’s unclear whether schools will open or learning will be remote, and how can parents support them through that?

Honestly the biggest thing on my mind right now is, how are we going to support the mental health and emotional well-being of our children?

Yes, we've got the schooling, yes, we’ve got the physical safety, lots of things to be worried about. But our ultimate goal is to make sure that we're safe physically and emotionally. We've put a lot of effort, since the pandemic started, on the physical side, but we're really now starting to see that the emotional is likely equally important and we really do need to have a whole person, whole child, whole parent, whole teacher approach.

What we need to do is think about the social - how are we connecting?; emotional - how are we feeling?; and behavioral - how are we acting and what are we doing?

I'm sure you've seen in different news stories, anxiety and depression in the overall population is on the rise. We're starting to get data on what that means for kids. It's not perfect yet because we're still in the middle of everything, but we're seeing increases in emergency room visits for mental health issues, and the same thing with suicide trends.

We're watching that really carefully now. There are definitely things to be worried about, but for me, I like to try and channel those worries into actions — the fact that we know this is a concern means that we have opportunity for action. And so we can talk about emotional health, behavioral health, mental health, as a priority. Maybe we can even make it a national priority, as a public health issue.

This is a great opportunity for action in terms of strengthening things for every one of us. I didn't coin the phrase, but I think it's a great phrase — it's been referred to as “behavioral vaccines.” So just like getting our physical vaccine for COVID, it's the idea of behavioral vaccines so that every one of us can benefit. And the focus of our work has been working in schools and with schools and families to think about, what are the strategies that every one of us can do to bolster, or strengthen, or reinforce emotional well-being.

I was going to ask you about the rise in anxiety and depression. This has been getting worse in recent years anyway, with social media and all these other factors. What can a parent do?

The core piece to what we want to do is prevent from getting to the really negative and awful outcomes that are all over the media. Let's go over a couple of strategies that create a foundation for emotional well-being or wellness for each of us.

The first strategy is to acknowledge the emotions. We don't bury them or hide them or say there's something wrong about feeling bad or sad or mad or worried about something. We want to validate those feelings. Because again, a lot of these feelings are pretty normal right now that we're all having, when we're going up and down in the way we're worrying about or thinking about things that are going on. So acknowledging the feelings is what's called psychoeducation. We can learn about what's happening, what's normal, what's to be expected.

We could do [an exercise] called “Don't sink the boat” if we want to learn about the cycle of anxiety, and how parents might unintentionally reinforce those feelings in a way that would be a negative. Think about building your boat. And if you let a lot of rocks pile up in that boat, what happens? It sinks, right?

So think about each of those rocks as a worry. And the boat is you. What we're trying to do is gain skills to figure out, “How do I toss my rocks overboard?” We don't want to sink. And we don't do that by just waiting for somebody to bail the water out, like, “Oh, it's okay, honey, you'll
be fine. Let me pull this out,” because that could just reinforce those feelings.

We want to write those worries down, practice tossing them away, and get praise and feedback for being able to toss them.

What else?

Probably the biggest one that you see is really pushing hard to maintain those routines. I know it's extremely controversial, but that's one of the reasons why there have been pushes to get schools open. Yes, it's about academic learning slide and all that stuff, but really it's about predictability. We're human beings. We love routines. We love our rituals. We love everything that creates the sense of calmness and knowing what we're supposed to be doing.

I do it even with my teen, how do we set up the daily routine? What are we going to do? With younger kids, you could use picture boards and schedule those blocks: When's my learning time? When is my playtime? When is my sleep time? Like you would do if you went to school and you see it on the board. For older kids, you can use technology; whatever strategy works best for them.

And then, you check in without judgment. How did it go? What do we need to do differently? If it's not working well, what breaks do we need? How do we get our attention or feelings back on track? What are lists of things that we can do to reset?

You wrote on your blog about the silver linings that come with what's going on right now. Tell me about those.

I think it's acknowledging that we're all in a different space, it's not catastrophizing that everything is awful for everyone. Instead of viewing everything is a negative, let's look for some positives. There have been some highlights for some kids — again, not all — but for some there have been positives about a remote environment.

Even in my house, we have a teen, so usually we're used to being crazy busy with the schedule of nonstop from pre-dawn till way past, whenever, and some of the spaces in a hybrid schedule have given a little bit more breathing time. It's not all negative. So if we can start to look for silver linings by looking for pockets of good, or pockets of possible, that can help us.

The pandemic isn't the only thing going on right now, obviously. How can parents talk to children and teens about what's going on in our country, between the insurrection at the Capitol a few weeks ago to the general divisiveness. What's the best way to approach that to keep your child emotionally well?

There isn't going to be one best way, but there are going to be some strategies to think about. And I think you're asking me about that in particular because the theme that I'm trying to reinforce is how we can really use these as teachable moments around social-emotional well-being, social-emotional wellness, social-emotional learning.

These are really critical opportunities to embed civics and democracy and all the wonderful stuff that we need to have in our nation for future generations. The key piece is to address it directly. If we put our heads down and we bury ourselves in the sand and we ignore it, what that does is it leaves kids hanging to interpret it on their own, which in effect can create more anxiety, more worry. So it's important to understand facts in a way that's appropriate developmentally. Things that I talk about with a 15-year-old would be different than the way I talk about it with a 7-year-old.

That's part of the psychoeducation, rocks exercise we talked about before: Here are the facts. Now let's talk about what we're thinking about it. What are we thinking? What are we feeling? What do I believe as the parent, what are my belief systems? That's a great opportunity to use the situation as a teachable moment to not only strengthen their social-emotional skills and learn their history and civics lessons, but begin to identify family, community, and then your own personal beliefs and values.

There are some really great resources out there. We've put out some of them in some of our Collaboratory newsletters. I think the Child Mind Institute, in particular, has some really great steps for parents. There are great curriculum guides for teachers that have come out.

That said though, it is important — to use that analogy I think we're probably tired of hearing, but we'll say it again — to put your own oxygen mask on first. If you're not ready to have a conversation about the facts and your thoughts, you shouldn't do that because you can create more issues. Writing things down, sometimes I'm better at doing that. What do I want to say? I script it out, then I'm better able to start the conversation.

Listen to the interview on the UConn 360 podcast: