Emotional coping strategies for COVID times

By Sally Kenney, Kilvington Grammar School Psychologist:  

Here we go again!

At the end of last term, many of us had made plans for the break. After two short weeks, however, fears had been realised …. it was back into lockdown. Just when we hoped it was safe to venture out; to see friends, go to the cinema, the gym or go out for dinner … it was all snatched away. Where hope had started to emerge, disappointment, grief and deflation rushed in.

We have entered this next phase of remote learning with adjusted expectations and the benefit of hindsight, but this time is different to last time in some key ways. While last time, the vast majority of cases in Melbourne were returned travellers, (theoretically) safely tucked away in hotels, this time the virus is spreading in the community and not always quickly or easily traced.

Melburnians have been directed to wear masks when out in public and have been put on notice that there will be no more warnings and to expect to be fined for breaking the rules. It almost feels more real now and many are reporting increased anxiety relative to the earlier phases of the pandemic.

More people are experiencing anger about lapses in protection and control, both systemic and individual. Last time we had no idea what lockdown would be like, and for some it felt like going on an adventure. This time we know how tiring it can be, juggling our children’s needs with those of our employer.

We know that working from home can feel like living at work. Some may be feeling anxious and overwhelmed, while others may be feeling confident that they know what to do and how to manage. And, humans being humans, we can drift between these two ends of the spectrum on any given day.

Prior to returning to onsite learning last term, we surveyed students in Years 7 to 10 to find out what their experience of learning from home had been like and what they needed to make their transition back to School as smooth and supported as possible.

The student responses indicated that they were very much looking forward to being back at School and reconnecting with their friends and teachers. The vast majority of students told us that they were looking forward to not looking at a screen all day.

What they also told us was that during remote learning, many felt more worried and lonely than usual, and more than half felt less engergised. Nearly half of those who responded also reported being less physically active than usual.

Hopefully, we have all taken time to reflect on what worked for us in Term 2, and may even have talked about ‘next time’, just in case. This is the time to put into action what we have learned.

There is a large body of research into coping and what the most effective strategies are when dealing with adversity. Coping strategies that focus on identifying and processing thoughts and feelings are much more helpful than strategies focused on avoiding or wishing away the issues.

Those who cope best with difficult times enlist the support of others around them and offer support in turn (you can read more about coping here).

Research undertaken following disaster events indicates that post-traumatic growth is possible when young people have adequate social support, a sense of agency and control, and can engage in emotional processing rather than anxious rumination.

SOME TIPS TO HELP YOUR CHILDREN

Encourage and support your children to maintain meaningful connections with their friends. Playing and having fun are just as important as learning tasks.

Children can be given a sense of agency by being involved in planning, creating family routines, and helping others. Giving children these opportunities can help them to feel less at the mercy of unwanted external events and instead redirect their focus to what is within their control.

Emotional processing helps children reflect on their experiences with openness and curiosity and can leave them feeling relieved, especially when it occurs in the context of a conversation with a trusted person. To help your child with this, ask them how they are feeling about what is going on around them, how they think others might be feeling, and what is similar or different between them and others. Validating a young person’s emotional experience with a simple ‘me too’ can be comforting as they learn that they are not alone with their feelings.

It is also fine not to talk about COVID-19, and to shift our focus onto things we are grateful for, learning or enjoying.

FAMILY RESILIENCE

While the concept of individual resilience is often discussed in respect to adverse events, systems such as businesses, communities and families need to be resilient too. Professor Lea Waters, who is working this year with Kilvington staff, has created a range of resources for families to help build resilience – available here.

GET OUTSIDE

Studies have shown a link between low levels of Vitamin D and increased risk of mental health difficulties in young people. Master of Educational Psychology candidate from The University of Melbourne, Ruth Keh, has summarised a sample of this research, including tips for boosting Vitamin D through diet as well as sunlight.

As always, Kilvington’s team of dedicated class teachers and pastoral carers will be monitoring students’ wellbeing as closely as possible, whether they are attending on campus or learning from home.