Help parents establish and protect consistent, restful sleep for their children. They can set a consistent bedtime and a calm routine, with screens all off at least 30 minutes before sleep and reading before sleep. Restful sleep is physiologically and psychologically protective to everyone in a family.
Beyond directly improving physical health, establishing habits of exercise – especially outside – every day can effectively manage ongoing stress, build skills of self-regulation, and help with sleep.
Find out what parents and their children like to do together (walking the dog, shooting hoops, even dancing) and help them devise ways to create family routines around exercise.
Food should be a source of pleasure, but stress can make food into a source of comfort or escape. Help parents to create realistic ways to consistently offer healthy family meals and discourage unhealthy habits.
Even small changes like water instead of soda can help, and there are nutritional and emotional benefits to eating a healthy breakfast or dinner together as a family.
Nourishing social connections are protective. Help parents think about protecting time to spend with their children for talking, playing games, or even singing.
They should support their children’s connections to other caring adults, through community organizations (church, community centers, or sports), and they should know who their children’s reliable friends are. Parents will benefit from these supports for themselves, which in turn will benefit the full family.
Activities that cultivate mindfulness are protective. Parents can simply ask how their children are feeling, physically or emotionally, and be able to bear it when it is uncomfortable. Work towards nonjudgmental awareness of how they are feeling. Learning what is relaxing or recharging for them (exercise, music, a hot bath, a good book, time with a friend) will protect against defaulting into maladaptive coping such as escape, numbing, or avoidance.
Of course, if you learn about symptoms that suggest PTSD, depression, or addiction, you should help your patient connect with effective treatment. The difficulty of referring to a mental health provider does not mean you should not try and bring as many people onto the team and into the orbit of the child and family at risk. It may be easier to access some therapy given the new availability of telemedicine visits across many more systems of care. Although the heaviest burdens of adversity are not being borne equally, the fact that adversity is currently a shared experience makes this a moment of promise.
Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Dr. Swick and Dr. Jellinek had no relevant financial disclosures. Email them at [email protected].
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This article was updated 7/27/2020.