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As the pandemic school year begins, parents face what feels like an unsustainable juggling act, especially with last-minute shifts in reopening plans and mad-dash scrambles for childcare coverage. The stress is overwhelming for many.
“As a parent dealing with the chaos, I know it’s tough,” said Nicole Bolognini, director of NewBridge Services Child and Family Services and mother of three young children.
Throughout August, NewBridge has offered tips to help college students, young children and teens cope with returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, the nonprofit focuses on building resilience in parents. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. Decades of research have found it is a set of skills that both adults and children can learn.
“It’s important for parents to put on their oxygen masks first!” — Nicole Bolognini
The first step in building resilience is acceptance. “Internalize a version of the Serenity Prayer that meshes with your spiritual beliefs,” said NewBridge CEO Michelle Borden, a licensed clinical social worker. “The essence of it is this: control what you can, accept what you can’t, but don’t remain passive. Have the courage to do some things differently, to know when the control is not yours and to be OK with doing what you can,” Borden said. Individuals cannot stop the pandemic, but they can take precautions to safeguard themselves and their children, and help control the spread.
Acceptance also helps to keep a situation in perspective, when considered against in the wider scheme of life. Keep in mind that the pandemic will end at some point, and that times of great challenge can also be times of personal growth. “This can help reframe negative thoughts,” she said.
Having strong social connections is good for mental health, and in a crisis, having a support network can flip negative feelings. “Keeping in touch reminds you that you are not in this alone. It also creates a space for parents to brainstorm solutions to challenges created by the pandemic and fallout from it,” Bolognini said. Talking in person can be more satisfying than over devices, so consider a socially distanced get-together.
Helping others promotes well-being and helps to put problems in perspective. “Look for small ways to lend a hand: shop for an elderly neighbor, volunteer to help people who are less fortunate, or champion a cause you believe in,” Borden said. Humans are wired to help one another, and doing so can release mood-improving hormones. Accept help when it’s offered, and offer it when you can give it, Bolognini added.
Like children, parents need a schedule to ensure activities important to their personal growth— exercise, working on a new skill or academic degree, engaging in a hobby — don’t fall by the wayside. “Easier said than done, no question. But claiming even 10-minute blocks a few times a day can bolster feelings of accomplishment,” Bolognini said. Research shows that daily rituals improve our outlook; morning rituals help us get ready for the day, and evening rituals allow us to reflect on what we accomplished, Borden added.
One way for parents to claim some time is to delegate chores. This is especially important in families working and schooling at home all day. Alternate play breaks with short cleanup sessions. Let children participate in choosing and preparing meals, and the cleanup. Older children can run a load of laundry, and little ones can help fold. “Reward yourselves for big and small achievements,” she said.
To build resiliency and overall good mental health, people need to take care of their physical health. Eat healthy meals that include lean proteins and plenty of vegetables, and limit snack foods and sugary beverages. Exercise regularly, doing a mix of aerobic activities, strength training and stretching. “Get outside! If you don’t have time for a walk in the woods, do a lap around the block, or play outdoor games with you children,” Bolognini said. Aim to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, and be consistent with the times you go to bed and wake.
It’s not easy to stay positive when you feel overwhelmed by life, but it’s a worthy goal. Keep a gratitude journal. “If that’s too much, take a minute to think of things that make you smile,” Borden said. Take nice deep belly breaths, and exhale slowly. A few minutes of deep breathing can lower stress levels. Try a guided imagery meditation, mindfulness meditation and meditative walking. One or more may suit you. Low-cost meditation apps like Calm and Headspace may also be helpful.
Laughter too can reduce stress. Put on a program that makes you giggle. Limit how much time you spend watching, reading or listening to negative news stories, Bolognini said. And it’s OK to lock yourself in the bathroom for a few minutes of alone time, she added.
Building resilience takes effort, but it’s a goal that has a big payout for parents and their children. New Jersey may very well face a second wave of the coronavirus, but parents who practice resiliency will fare better. “They have the tools to rise to the challenge,” Borden said. Some people may find they aren’t able to manage stress using these techniques, and need professional help. Parents can call NewBridge Services at (973) 316-9333 to schedule a telehealth counseling session with a licensed therapist.
“We are living through a crisis with so many ramifications,” Bolognini said. “It’s important for parents to put on their oxygen masks first!”