HOW TO MANAGE
We’re living through an unprecedented and extraordinary time, which is taking a huge toll on our mental wellbeing. The NHS recently revealed that one in six children are likely to now have mental health issues, with Covid and lockdown identified as aggravating factors, not to mention the impact on the wider wellbeing of the family.
With Stress Awareness Month launching on April 1, we speak to psychologist, author and founder of The Village, Dr. Kalanit Ben-Ari @dr_kalanit to find what we can all do to help manage anxiety and stress within the family.
What would your advice be to families struggling with anxiety, as a result of the pandemic and lockdown?
“I recommend that families try to go back to basics. Where possible, make sure you are spending time in nature and out in the fresh air, as this can be so beneficial to your wellbeing. For people living in Cities, it can sometimes be difficult to find that space but exploring your local parks and green spaces is a good place to start. Also, although it is an incredibly stressful time remember that children are resilient, and that you are doing the best you can in a situation which is out of your control.
Something that can be hugely beneficial to parents is talking about how you feel. I set-up GetTheVillage.com, an online community platform, for exactly this purpose. It offers the opportunity to meet like-minded parents, whilst also being guided by support from leading experts. You can connect and talk with other parents and make use of free webinars and guidance from parenting experts.”
What are the biggest issues you’re seeing, with regards to mental health in children and families?
“For new mothers it has been very challenging, without baby-mother groups and in-person support like breastfeeding groups. They understandably are feeling isolated, lonely and like they have a lack of support at such an important transition in their life. Also, parents of teens are among those who have been affected the most in my opinion – I definitely have a record waiting list for parents of teens right now.
Overcoming these issues can feel overwhelming, especially when this last year has put so much pressure on families. However, as a starting point for anyone who is struggling, my advice would be to practise mindfulness. Try yoga, breathing exercises, being in and connecting with nature, or meditation – whatever clears your mind of noise and allows you to be present in the moment.
If you are a parent and are feeling isolated and lacking in a support network at the moment, firstly recognise and understand that you aren’t alone in this. Also remember that if you are finding things challenging, talking about your feelings and emotions (not just giving an account of the day) with someone you trust, who will hear you out in an accepting and non-judgmental way is hugely beneficial. Speaking about your feelings is an important outlet when you are feeling overwhelmed. You can also reach out to a GP or therapist too.”
“Social media and pop culture adds to our daily stress and pressure, and the more connected we are to technology, the less we are connected to our real-life relationships…”
Psychologist, Author and Founder of The Village, Dr. Kalanit Ben-Ari
What should you do as a parent, if you’re concerned your child is suffering from anxiety or struggling with mental health?
“Please don’t be afraid to reach out to your GP or Psychotherapist if you have serious concerns about your child’s mental health. They are there not only to support the child but also to guide you as a parent to understand underlying issues, to improve family connections and offer you skills to manage and cope with an anxious child. The fear of asking for help is often the biggest challenge to overcome – the experience itself is often reported as safe, positive and healing. As a therapist, I believe in working closely with parents, to identify your strengths, and to create the growth and needed change.”
Many young children are struggling with the return to school, what would your advice be to them? What can we as parents to do help?
“If your child is struggling, first of all listen to what they are telling you and reflect and validate how they feel. Don’t try to minimise it, ignore it or fix it. Often if we are struggling with something and reach out to someone we trust, we are seeking the reassurance of their presence, rather than asking for a solution. Once you have heard them, try to remind them of a time in the past they have overcome a similar challenge, and show them how resilient they have proven themselves to be.
You could also share an experience you yourself had of feeling a similar way, and what helped you in that situation. Make sure however that you acknowledge that you are different people, and it might be that they need a different solution. As well as having an open conversation about how they are feeling, it might be helpful for them to express their feelings more creatively through art, dance, playing an instrument or writing a diary.
Once you have validated your child’s feelings, ask them what they think they could do to make it slightly easier, or encourage your child to think about a solution together with you. Children see themselves reflected in their parents, so approach them with trust in their resilience and ability to overcome the challenge.
With a sudden change, from a year of living and schooling at home to returning to school life, it could be that your child needs a strong sense of routine at home, to help them to adjust. Create a routine as a family, with key points throughout the day that they know you will be spending together. It might be that you clear your morning to-do list to have breakfast together before work and school or sit down together every night for dinner as a family. In this regular family time share your thoughts and talk about your day. This type of recurring contact gives us the opportunity to recharge and share each other’s energy. Minimise screen time when you’re together so that you allow yourselves to be truly present in each other’s company.”
What can you do as a family to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety?
“Families have spent a lot of time together over the last year but creating meaningful family time together can be very helpful and it doesn’t need to be complicated. Just trying some simple activities, like dancing together at home, taking walks in the park, and having regular family dinners where we talk about the day, we had can be hugely helpful.
You could undertake some creative projects together as a family, for example play a co-operative board game or a joint art project such as creating the family photo album you always wanted. The most important thing is to spend time together as a family without distractions from each other, especially screens. Social media and pop culture adds to our daily stress and pressure, and the more connected we are to technology, the less we are connected to our real-life relationships. Technology also adds overwhelming noise and has the opposite effect of peace and being present in the moment. When you are with your family focus on listening more than you speak. See the wonder in them. Approaching family activities with a sense of humour and gentleness is also very important.”
“Children in the 21st century are ‘over-scheduled’ from a very young age. Often children just need time to recharge and relax, and you as a parent need this too…”
Psychologist, Author and Founder of The Village, Dr. Kalanit Ben-Ari
Many parents are also feeling incredibly anxious and overwhelmed, what would your advice be to them?
“It is understandable that parents might be feeling particularly anxious and overwhelmed at the moment. If you are feeling overburdened, reach out to your support network where possible. Think about areas which are of particular stress for you, and how you could seek help in that area. For example, if your child’s homework is of particular concern do you know anyone who might be able to help them with that once or twice a week? If cooking food causes you significant stress, could you order a takeaway once or twice a week, to ease some of that pressure?
If you find that your feelings or behaviours are preventing you from functioning healthily in your day-to-day life, then it might be time to seek professional help. If you find that stress or anxiety is interfering with your relationships, work, sleeping, eating or parenting for example, then often this is an indication that something might not be right. If any of these activities become consistently challenging or overwhelming, or you are experiencing a constant low mood, panic attacks, extreme tiredness or any feelings that prevent you from doing day to day activities, then I would recommend reaching out for your GP or psychotherapist.
It is important to remember that this is an incredibly challenging time, and it is OK not to feel OK at this time. However, children live and grow in our ‘shadow’, and it is our emotional state that affects them, more than what we say or teach them. Think about what brings you joy and incorporate more of that into your life. Slow down and connect with yourself. Also, lower your expectations of what you can and should be doing now. Children in the 21st century are ‘over-scheduled’ from a very young age. Often children just need time to recharge and relax, and you as a parent need this too.
Bringing meaning to the last year can also inspire you.”
How can you support your partner/husband, if they are also struggling with anxiety?
“Make sure you are checking in with each other daily, to talk about how you feel and how can you show up for them. As with conversations with children who might be struggling with anxiety, remember to validate how they feel and don’t try to impose your opinions of what they need to do on them. It is more important to just be present with them and to ask what you can do to offer support and what they need from you. Be kind with your words, actions and offer them more hugs than usual.”