World Mental Health Day 2020: An Important Message For Parents

In our conversation with Dr Shekhar Seshadri, senior expert on child and adolescent mental health, NIMHANS, we explore the various ways in which parents can best adapt themselves to the new reality.

By Dr Manpreet Kaur  • 8 min read

World Mental Health Day 2020: An Important Message For Parents
Dr Shekhar Seshadri in the picture

Being a parent is challenging, and in the midst of a pandemic, the challenges can intensify. In these difficult times, it’s normal to experience distress, which may impact the functioning and coping of both the parent and the child. Dr Seshadri talked to ‘ParentCircle’ about stress and the importance of taking care of our mental and physical health.

Watch the exclusive interview here: 

World Mental Health day 2020: An important message for parents - Part 1

1. Given the context of the pandemic, what are the things parents need to focus on? What should be our priorities?

Schools are closed and have been replaced with online education. During this pandemic, children have experienced many kinds of loss—loss of routine, loss of structure, loss of predictability, loss of learning opportunities, loss of social spaces, loss of peer interaction and loss of play. Therefore, for parents, academics should definitely not be the priority now. We need to get through these difficult times by focusing on our children’s physical and mental health.

Academics and access to school are important for maintaining a routine and creating a sense of normalcy for our children. But parents need to focus on their children’s social-emotional development, their socialization. They need to make opportunities for children to socialize, even if it means using technology. This is true for toddlers as well, who need early stimulation through play. The constraints of social isolation have resulted in teens spending most of their time in their rooms, with very little social contact due to lack of activities. So, for adolescents, parents need to provide opportunities to break free from extended online classes, screen time and confinement in a room.

2. We live in a culture of “Be productive”. Parents are expecting too much from themselves during this pandemic. How can they deal with their unrealistic expectations and guilt?

The situation is new for all of us—and we are learning together and gradually. We need to let go of the pressure of perfect parenting, and redefine the term “productivity”. Productivity, perhaps, should embrace activities that are both meaningful and creative—creating a YouTube channel with friends or running an advocacy campaign on Instagram or engaging in hobbies, such as poetry or photography or reading.

However, one needs to be mindful of excessive screen time as well. Let’s take the example of gaming, which many children have taken up seriously. But gaming can have long-term consequences, such as behavioral addictions. So, this issue can be a little tricky to negotiate. So, it’s important to have conversations with your children about how they’re spending their time, what activities they’re engaging in, who are the friends they’re interacting with … These are important in order to address the kind of pressure the parents might feel and to negotiate the post-pandemic time.

World Mental Health day 2020: An important message for parents - Part 2

3. Many parents have learned healthy coping skills, while others are finding it difficult to cope with the changes. What kind of practical strategies can parents adopt for their well-being?

The same strategies that were suggested for children are applicable to parents as well—such as physical activities and hobbies … There’s one thing parents need to remember: Parenting is only one part of the many roles they play. It’s not the only role! Parents are spouses, they are children of their own parents, they are siblings, they are citizens, they belong to a workplace and they have colleagues. So, while being a parent is an important part of their identity, it cannot be their only identity.

If your mental and emotional resources are depleted, you may end up with frustration, anger and despondency, which may affect your relationship with your spouse. Therefore, it’s important to retain your individuality and take care of your own mental health as much as your children’s. Only then will you have the resources and the energy and the joy to work with your children in ways that are practical.

World Mental Health day 2020: An important message for parents - Part 3 

4. E-learning is here to stay. How can parents help their children navigate e-learning?

One must understand that, ultimately, learning is social. Hence, technology can be used to overcome the barriers that the pandemic has imposed on us.

Despite the pandemic, we shouldn’t stop working on the social-emotional development of our children. A child can always learn content, but the relationship they share with the parent and the teacher is the defining factor in learning. Engaging with children, reading them stories and poems, and doing nature-based activities—walking in the garden or the park, looking at pictures of nature on the internet, observing plants and flowers and animals, and talking about nature—are some ways you can enhance your children’s social-emotional learning.

Decision-making is an important aspect of adolescent development. Your children will co-operate with you more if you involve them in decision-making. While e-learning has several advantages and disadvantages, it’s important to understand your child’s experience with e-learning. Some children are doing really well, while others are not able to handle online classes. It’s important to understand the advantages and challenges from your child’s perspective.

5. What can parents do to improve the resilience of their children during this COVID-19 situation? We do know that mitigating distress goes a long way in helping children before it deteriorates into mental disorder.

There are many things parents can do in order to mitigate the distress you speak about. Listen to your children attentively. To help your child deal with stress, you need to model stress management strategies—show your child how you handle the tensions and stresses of everyday life.

Also, acknowledge to your child that this is a difficult time for everyone. Show empathy to your child. Instead of adopting a deficit-based approach that involves statements such as “This is so difficult and traumatizing”, parents should embrace a strength-based approach that involves saying—“This will build my resilience” or “This will build my knowledge and experience”. This approach will validate your child’s experiences.

For example, you can tell your child: “I know you feel bored and lonely, or even angry. Some days, I’m amazed at how you still manage to cope and do something at home to keep yourself occupied. I’m proud of you.” In addition, to lower your children’s stress levels, you can help them create daily rituals, focus on the positives and be grateful, and talk to them about any challenge that you overcame. Also, help your child reconnect with a friend, family member or relative.

6. Is there any lesson parents can learn from the pandemic?

It’s important to pay attention to the physical and mental health of yourself and your children. Academic achievement is not a priority in this situation. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to rest, relax and rejuvenate. So, focus on spending time with family, learning new skills and generally being happy.

What you can do right away

• Engage in activities that can boost physical and mental health.

• Listen attentively to your child, and as parents, model stress management strategies to your children and help them nurture their own well-being.

• Have a balanced view of yourself and the many roles you play.

• Try to accept things that are beyond your control.

• Practise gratitude to mitigate the stress of the pandemic.

Also read:

The importance of me time for a mother's mental health

5 signs to know my child is in sound mental health

How sleep is essential to proper mental health

What kids need for good mental health

About the Expert:

Dr Shekhar Seshadri is a child psychiatrist with over 35 years of experience in the field of child mental health. As Senior Professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, NIMHANS, his work extends beyond the clinical population to children and childcare institutions/service providers across the country as well as South Asia. Some of his special areas of interest in child mental health are childhood trauma, gender and sexuality issues, and life skills education.

About the Author:

Interviewed by Manpreet Kaur, PhD, on October 9, 2020.

Dr Kaur has an MPhil in Mental Health and Social Psychology, and has received her doctorate from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. She is Senior Associate-Special Projects (Content Solutions Zone) at ‘ParentCircle’.

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