A checklist for sustaining health and wellbeing during the crisis
by Mark Bertin, MD
In the middle of these intensely unsettling and challenging times, what can we do for our families to stay healthy and emotionally resilient? Our regular routines are disrupted. We may be at home for the foreseeable future. Global news hammers on without relent. And as parents, we have the additional stress of making sense of it all for our children. How can we keep ourselves and them strong?
Here is an outline of some basic routines to consider. If you find it useful, come back to it regularly in the upcoming weeks.
1. Focus on staying resilient. Our mental health relies on our physical routines, all too easily lost during times of change.
- Exercise—Daily exercise will make your children happier, even if they complain—and probably make you happier too. Regular exercise affects mood, energy level, learning and more. If you can’t get outside, old-school calisthenics for a set time are great, or seek out online programs like the Seven Minute Workout or yoga for kids.
- Sleep—Actually, sleep may be the easiest thing to manage while school is out. But remember, a consistent routine, including a consistent bedtime, encourages better sleep.
- Nutrition—Eat healthy as you’re able. Don’t use food to keep kids happy. Stay with a balanced diet. Cooking is also a great activity when caught inside all day.
- Screen time—Seriously, stay on top of screen time. Kids who spend more time on screen get agitated, edgy, and wound up. Open-ended limits lead to more arguing. Set an amount, and a time, and that’s all. For adults—do the same, particularly by taking breaks from the news through most of the day. It is far easier to set limits and adjust than to create new ones after a difficult situation develops. Use time on screen wisely, and concisely.
- Relationships—One of the best uses for screens is in sustaining relationships with true friends and family. Use technology well. Support your family, and your children, by reaching out regularly to friends and relatives during these stressful times.
2. Create structure and routine. Being outside our routine unsettles all of us. Both adults and children may be happier with a rough schedule day to day. Use a piece of paper or whiteboard and post it somewhere for everyone.
- Schedule all your healthy activities, like exercise.
- Set aside time for schoolwork if your school is assigning it, or other hobbies and intellectual pursuits.
- Schedule and prioritize whatever else you’d like, like family time or outdoor time.
- Create a chore schedule to keep your physical environment together—or maybe even, use the time home to take on bigger projects (cleaning a closet, giving away toys).
3. Take care of your family and your community. Stopping the spread of COVID-19 is the bottom line. Follow whatever guidelines are being made as best as you’re able, from reputable sources like the American Academy of Pediatrics. At the time of writing, that means:
- Handwashing and lots of it. For yourself, and your children, teach, practice and monitor proper techniques.
- Avoid handshakes (that’s easy), and touching your face (that’s not so easy, but worth working on).
- Wipe down public and high use areas often.
- Stay away from others if you are sick, at risk (elderly or immune compromised) or think someone else might be sick.
- In ‘COVID-19 hot spots,’ stay home if you can—and stay at least six feet from people when you’re able. For most kids, unfortunately, that means not getting together in person with friends for now.
4. Around online schooling stay vigilant. Online learning is a largely unproven technology, and many teachers have little of their own experience to fall back on.
- Expect your child will need supervision and guidance while working online.
- If your child has ADHD, remember that means they have immature executive function skills—meaning, they are behind in self-management. They will need more direct involvement and structure than same age peers to get online work done.
- Ask for teacher support early. If your child is struggling to learn at home, seek out advice for what to try next.
5. Stay realistic but reassuring about COVID-19. Remember—kids process things differently than adults. Encourage discussion and questions but avoid oversharing and flooding with facts. Kids often need more straightforward answers to their questions first. Then wait and see what further questions your responses elicit. Answer those in the same way—brief and to the point, honest, and reassuring.
- It is factual to say that most children do not get ill from COVID-19. Most of the precautions mean to stop the spread, not specifically to protect children at this time.
- Make what is going on a lesson in community building instead of fear: We are all doing this to act together and protect the few of us at risk.
- Consider making this a lesson of preparedness also—as a family, as a community, and a country. What can we all learn to do differently to prevent this in the future?
6. Consider mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is about building resilience during challenging times—paying attention to how we relate to whatever is happening in real life, moment to moment. As it turns out, right now you may have more time for it than usual. Mindfulness doesn’t mean calm all the time or chipper in spite of being afraid. It simply means building skills that help us do our best to stay settled and on point as often as we’re able. And one of its most proven benefits is around anxiety.
For adults, focus on living with uncertainty. One core to our stress right now is that we just don’t know. When we’re off balance like that, we tend to wind ourselves up, or fall back on reactive habits like snapping at people or withdrawing from the world or compulsively reading the news.
- Set aside a few minutes a day—as many as you can find—to work with uncertainty. What is it like to be uncertain, and then choose when or if to act instead of reacting emotionally? Uncertainty is here, it’s going to be here, and resilience relies on staying patient, alert and grounded.
- Focus for a few minutes on each breath, one at a time. When our minds are unsettled, counting breaths can help. Count up to seven breaths, then start over. Expect to get lost in distraction. When you do, start where you last recall in your counting.
- Throughout these few minutes—and then through the rest of your day—notice when you get hooked by uncertainty. Explore how it feels. Label it. And see if you can come back to one breath, best as you are able. Don’t expect perfection, but keep working on dropping the hook, over and over again.
For kids, focus on staying settled. Working with uncertainty is abstract for children, and really, the idea around mindfulness for kids is often more of ‘planting seeds.’ Normalize the experience of awareness so that it grows over time.
- If your child seems open to it, set aside a few minutes a day for a mindfulness practice. Don’t force it, or you’ll potentially turn them off to it.
- Find a guided practice online—mine are available on Soundcloud and the InsightTimer but many other people and apps offer great ones for free too. Make it a family activity—join them at bedtime or make it part of any transition (like before starting homework, or at mealtime).
- Don’t expect anything in particular to happen. Gently guide them back when they get distracted, keep it unforced and fun, and let the mindfulness practice unfold however it does that day. Demonstrate mindfulness by relating skillfully to whatever you experience in that moment.
Mark Bertin, MD, is a developmental pediatrician and author of How Children Thrive, Mindful Parenting for ADHD, and The Family ADHD Solution, which integrate mindfulness into the rest of evidence-based pediatric care. He is a contributing author for the book Teaching Mindfulness Skills to Kids and Teens. Bertin is on faculty at New York Medical College and the Windward Teacher Training Institute, and on the advisory boards for the nonprofits Common Sense Media and Reach Out and Read. He is a regular contributor to Mindful Magazine, and his blog is available through Mindful.org and Psychology Today. Today’s blog also appears on PsychologyToday.com. For more information, please visit his website at developmentaldoctor.com.