Published on Psychology Today
February is here, which marks almost a year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to engage in strict social distancing measures. Not surprisingly, a lot of us are getting a little antsy to say the least, and others are downright depressed. According to the CDC, symptoms of depression were up considerably in 2020 compared to the previous year, and a recent paper estimated that depression has increased threefold since the start of the pandemic (Ettman et al., 2020). It’s not just adults who have been affected; survey data collected internationally are suggesting that children and adolescents are experiencing higher than usual levels of depression and anxiety as well (e.g., Duan et al., 2020; Orgilés et al., 2020; Yeasmin et al., 2020; Zhou et al., 2020).
And cold weather doesn’t help. In fact, there are so many people whose moods are affected by bad weather that the American Psychological Association gave it an official name: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or depressive symptoms that are associated with the season (which is almost always winter). Unfortunately, we are likely facing at least 6 more weeks of winter weather (thanks a lot, Punxsutawney Phil), which means more long hours of isolated indoor entertainment.
What do we do to help with those February blues, for ourselves and for our kids? Here are a few ideas based in science.
Whenever and however you can, it’s important to stay social. Studies on the relation between social isolation and mental health in adults, children, and adolescents shows that feelings of isolation and loneliness are associated with increased risk for depression (e.g., Loades et al., 2020). And what’s more socially isolating than a global pandemic…in February?
There is a whole lot of research on depression and it’s causes. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that much of this research confirms that stressful life events—like a global pandemic—can easily cause depressive symptoms in adults, adolescents, and children (Lin & Dean, 1984). But what it also suggests is that social support—or your social ties to other people—can buffer against these symptoms. Social relationships are incredibly important for maintaining happiness in general. And in fact, in a large survey of students from all over the world, the single best predictor of life satisfaction was having strong social relationships (Helliwell & Aknin, 2018).
So don’t lose touch with your friends and family, and don’t let your kids either. When you can’t gather outside where it’s safe, have a virtual happy hour, or a virtual play date for your kids. I know that it can be hard to motivate for this kind of thing sometimes, especially if you’re an introvert, but making the effort might be the boost you and your kids need to get through the month.
All kids like to play, and it’s a good thing too, because play is an important part of childhood, with benefits spanning from physical and cognitive to social and emotional. But, during a wintertime pandemic where most children are learning remotely and getting little interaction with their peers, opportunities to play can be limited.
Research suggests parents and children that play together tend to build close bonds and healthy attachments, so stepping in and doing a little bit more playtime yourself might be good for both you and your child. One thing you probably have at home that you might try to do together is playing with blocks or doing a good old fashioned jigsaw puzzle. Indeed, puzzle sales have soared during the COVID pandemic, mostly purchased by adults for these long days stuck indoors. But doing puzzles can have enormous benefits for children too, beyond just killing time. Research has shown that playing with toys like Legos, blocks, and jigsaw puzzles is related to better spatial skills, and in turn, better performance on math problems (Oostermeijer, Boonen, & Jolles, 2014). Similarly, playing with shape sorters, or simply pointing out the shape of objects and their dimensions—using words like square, triangle, and circle, or spatial language like bent, curvy, tall, and short—can help draw children’s attention to the spatial features of objects and toys, and thus also encourage the development of children’s spatial skills (Pruden & Levine, 2017).
If your kids aren’t into puzzles, what about a little music? There are a number of studies showing a relationship between musical training, language ability, reading skills, vocabulary, and even math skills in children. There is even evidence that musical training can boost a child’s IQ (Schellenberg, 2004). Don’t have the money or time for music lessons? That’s okay, singing and dancing at home with your kids is completely free. In fact, there is evidence that sharing music together at home is related to increased pro-social skills in children (Williams et al., 2015), and a very recent study showed that attending children’s music lessons even improves parents’ moods, especially highly anxious parents (Kawase & Ogawa, 2020).
Besides puzzles, block building, and perhaps a little singing, if you’re looking for other activities to do at home with your child, try something physical. There is an abundance of research showing that exercise can decrease symptoms of depression. In fact, even just walking for 20-40 min a day a few times a week can do the trick (Craft & Perna, 2004). Although there isn’t as much research on exercise in young children, there is some evidence of a similar relation between exercise and improved mental health in children and adolescents (Biddle & Asare, 2011). And besides mental health benefits, exercise has obvious benefits for weight loss and general physical health as well.
This means that despite the cold, you should try to get outside when you can, even if there’s a nip in the air. If it gets below freezing, don’t fret; there are plenty of apps and YouTube videos you can watch that provide free exercise routines that you can do indoors, in front of your TV, laptop, tablet, or smart phone. There are even workout routines that are specifically designed for you to do with your kids. For example, you can do Cosmic Kids Yoga to the Frozen soundtrack, or a choose-your-own Pixar character cardio workout where you and your kids can exercise alongside Buzz Lightyear. Doing these exercise routines together can be fun, it can help with closeness and the need to be social, and benefit both your physical and mental health all at the same time.
Talk to each other.
Unfortunately, not everyone can muster the motivation to play or socialize every day, especially when you’re feeling down. As hard as it can be to talk about your feelings, it’s important for your mental health to express how you’re feeling to others. Similarly, it’s also important to give kids the opportunity to express how they feel and to ask questions about the pandemic. This may not be easy; while it’s common for parents and children to talk about their good feelings with one another, it’s a lot harder to talk about the bad ones. In fact, in Western cultures, parents typically try to encourage children’s expression of positive emotions and minimize their expression of negative emotions (Pérez-Edger, 2019). However, encouraging children to talk about negative emotions is important for helping them understand what causes negative emotions and how to appropriately express them (Zeman, Cameron, & Price, 2019). Ignoring or even punishing kids for expressing negative emotions is associated with problems coping, being less emotionally expressive, and being more prone to developing emotional problems (Zeman, Cameron, & Price, 2019).
This means you should try to talk about your feelings and let your children talk about theirs, even if those feelings aren’t exactly good ones.
Give each other a break.
Finally, it’s important to note that parents’ own mental health can have downstream effects on their children. In fact, children of parents with anxiety and depression are at increased risk of developing these same problems themselves (Woodruff-Borden, Morrow, Bourland, & Cambron, 2002). There’s also a well-documented relationship between anxiety, depression, and risk for disease (e.g., Rawson, Bloomer, & Kendall, 1994; Suls & Bunde, 2005), and getting sick is exactly what we’re trying to avoid right now. So, give yourself a break once in a while, and give your kids one too. Children might act out more often than usual right now, because they’re scared, nervous, or just bored from being stuck indoors all day. Instead of giving them a time out, try to take one yourself; exercise for 15 minutes, play a fun game together, or facetime with a friend. These days, taking care of your own mental health can go a long way towards taking care of your child’s.
For additional information from the CDC about coping with stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, click here. It includes practical tips about what to do to keep your stress level down, along with information about how to get additional help and support if you need it.
For information about how to talk to your children about the coronavirus, click here.
Photograph by correualba/Pixabay
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