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Nothing about this year is “normal.” Or perhaps our new norm IS stress, anxiety and uncertainty.
The Oregon City School District’s Virtual learning was scheduled to begin September 8. And then the fires came. With the new school year beginning this week, parents will continue to juggle a myriad of issues as well as continued concerns about health, finances, food and housing. These concerns may differ for each family but they all cause stress and anxiety.
How can we cope as well as help our children cope?
There’s a reason airlines tell parents to put the oxygen masks on themselves first then their child. Easier said than done, but parents who deal with their own stress are usually better equipped to help their kids cope.
First and foremost, go easy on yourself. You are doing the best you can in an impossible situation. We absolutely need to offer ourselves, and others, grace during these difficult times. It can help to manage your own expectations. For example, don’t feel you must be the best home teacher in the world if you’re not trained for it. And even if you are, teaching a classroom of kids while trying to help your own child is no easy task. Don’t expect to be at your productive best when you are working at home and taking care of your own child, elderly parents, spouses, partners, etc.
Start by practicing your own self-care. Take a walk. Talk to a friend. Enjoy a quiet meal with your partner. Do something at least once a week that brings you joy. Even 30 minutes of something you enjoy can help you cope better.
Managing stress and anxiety for all family members
Breathing has been proven time and again to have incredible health benefits. A simple breathing technique can physically calm your brain and body. Think of it like food. Breathing from your diaphragm, or belly, is like eating fruits and vegetables, good proteins and healthy grains. If you breathe only from your chest where you’re not able to fully inflate your lungs, you’re not getting good ‘nutrition.’ It would be like eating fast food, cookies or ice cream all of the time. Maybe sustainable in the moment, but doesn’t fuel you to be your best and healthiest self.
Do a self-assessment. Lay down on your bed or the couch and put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your stomach. You should primarily feel the hand on your stomach rising and falling as you breathe in and out. If you only feel your chest rising, you need to train yourself to breathe from your diaphragm or belly.
Practice by putting your hand on your stomach and taking a deep breath in through your nose. You should feel your stomach inflate almost like you have a balloon in your belly. Breathe in to the count of four . . . hold for four seconds . . . and then breathe out to the count of four. Repeat this four times. Try it out here. Have your kids and other family members do it with you.
CREATE NEW ROUTINES
Decision-making fatigue is generating considerable stress for parents and others. It may not be the particular event that causes stress, but all the hassles that arise as a result. Clearly, routines that worked in the past no longer work. If you have not already done so, replace old routines with entirely new routines. Putting fresh routines in place can require fewer “modifying” decisions to the old routines to exhaust us. These new routines can help things feel normal and help you feel in control.
This goes for your kids as well. No matter their age, don’t assume your kids know what to expect even though they experienced virtual learning last spring. Talking about new routines and creating a visual schedule of what their day will look like can help normalize the new school year and reduce stress. Knowing what’s ahead can be comforting.
Build time in the schedule for staying connected to their friends. Youth who feel supported and accepted are more resilient and better positioned to weather stressful times. For younger kids, this may mean regular lunches together via Zoom and art projects they can send each other in the mail. Tweens and teens really need time on their devices to connect with friends and activities. Helping teens stay connected with peers is important.
Encourage teens to keep up any fun things they have been doing for the past six months, especially those involving physical activity. Even if they weren’t active in a sport or had a PE class, kids were getting opportunities for exercise during recess or going from class to class within their school. These opportunities are limited and with fall and winter on the way, we all may need to get creative and think of new ways to stay active.
FOCUS ON WHAT CAN BE CONTROLLED
Practice acceptance. Categorize what you can and can’t control. Focusing mostly on what you can control can go a long way toward reducing stress.
What to watch for with mental health issues
As this pandemic goes on … and on, mental health issues will keep emerging.
Being sad makes sense as a logical reaction to loss and unmet expectations, such as graduation ceremonies, parties and life as we knew it to be. There is no silly reason to be sad, especially during these days of COVID.
Talk to your kids often about how they are feeling. They may not know they are sad but are feeling numb or angry. Some kids are unaware of their feelings and are silent. Don’t take this as a sign that all is ok. Ask questions like, How are you feeling about doing school online right now?” or “What have you been thinking about lately?” to open the conversation and check in with them. It can be helpful to use a feelings chart with younger kids to help them recognize various emotions or an emotion thermometer to help them evaluate their feelings. For teens, some coping skills may be helpful or just taking time to explore their worry to help them identify what might happen vs what will happen.
All feelings have an important reason for being there. It’s not the feeling that causes the problem, but what we do with it. Pushing it away or pretending it doesn’t exist can make things worse.
Always validate your child and teen’s sadness. It is a healthy, normal emotion. Do not try to get them to let go and move on too quickly. But encourage them to seek positive social interactions with friends and family members, enjoy physical activities and eat well.
With that said, watch that the sadness doesn’t continue for too long. If the sadness becomes persistent, or interferes with normal social activities, interests, schoolwork or family life, it may indicate that they are depressed.
The symptoms of depression in children and teens vary. They can include:
- Continued feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- Social withdrawal
- Increased sensitivity to rejection
- Changes in sleep and/or appetite — either increased or decreased
- Anger, vocal outbursts, crying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue and low energy
- Physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches, that don’t respond to treatment
- Reduced ability to function at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
Likewise, you might notice an increase in symptoms of anxiety in children and teens which can include:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating; mind going blank
- Being irritable
- Having muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep
We have to be careful not to fall into a cycle of anxiety during this time of COVID given that much of us feel a great amount of uncertainty during this time. This article from Psychology Today gives some helpful tips on how you can help your teen struggling with anxiety.
If any of these conditions last, seek help. Your family practitioner or pediatrician can help diagnose the problem and offer solutions. Oregon’s “telehealth” rules have been loosened and it is now possible for counselors to take care of people online. School counselors continue to be a good resource as well. Ogden Middle School resources. Gardiner Middle School resources.
Here’s to a good school year. Remember, we are all doing the best we can in an impossible situation! Breathe!
Paige Hirt, LPC, NCC, CADC1
Paige is a parent, counselor and founding member of the Oregon City Together Coalition
The Upstanders movie explores cyber-bullying among students, friends, family, co-workers and the brain science behind it all. It shows how we can make a difference together to create systemic change. Film producers, IndieFlix, recommend it for ages 13+. Free. Hosted by Oregon City Together with support from Clackamas County Children, Families & Community Connections.
Being back to school for some kids means the excitement of reconnecting with friends, fall activities and sports. It may also mean increased stress and anxiety reaching beyond the worry of finding classrooms and opening lockers. For these young people, anxiety requires attention all year long.
The most recent Oregon Student Wellness survey shows many Oregon City youth are experiencing increased stress and anxiety. According to the survey, more than 18 percent of 11th – graders, 16 percent of eighth-graders and 11 percent of sixth grade students show high levels of psychological distress. The National Institute of Mental Health reports about 32 percent of teens experience anxiety disorders, with anxiety being more common among young women than young men. Teens who experience anxiety and distress use alcohol and marijuana two to three times more than other teens as a way to cope.
That is not surprising. While it’s hard to know exactly why we are seeing this increase in anxiety among youth, there are many possibilities. These include increased expectations for academic performance, peer pressure, social media, inability to effectively communicate, lack of ability to organize and prioritize, violence in our society, and pressure to meet perceived expectations of parents and others.
Symptoms can include worry, excessive stress, crying, loss of sleep, irritability, racing heart, difficulty breathing, sore muscles, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, avoidance of school, activities and friends, sweating, dizziness, headaches, stomach aches and nightmares.
Parents can take several steps to help their kids manage stress and anxiety.
- Develop a consistent schedule and help kids be organized. Knowing what’s happening day-to-day can decrease anxiety.
- Support down time. School, activities, sports, friends, homework, family time . . . it can all be a bit much. Take some time to relax, stay in your pajamas, watch a movie and get a break from the busy schedule.
- Advise teens to take a deep breath. Like the body needs nutritious food, brains need plenty of oxygen. A deep breath refuels and allows one to slow down a bit, think and solve problems.
- Encourage kids to get outside. Even a short walk may help.
- Teach relaxation and mindfulness strategies. Apps such as CALM and Headspace are tools that can be used daily.
- Increase skills related to solving problems. Being able to solve problems builds confidence and decreases anxiety because kids know they can do it.
- Help kids develop coping strategies. Take a hot bath, listen to music, shoot hoops, play with your pet, journal, color, talk to a friend . . . the list is endless, but individual. Find what works best for your child or teen.
Film producers state films are appropriate for children older than 10. Please review the trailers to determine your comfort level.
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
5:30pm to 8:30pm
1232 Linn Avenue
Oregon City, OR 97045
Future site of the new Oregon City Police Department
National Night Out is an annual community-building campaign that promotes police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie to make our neighborhoods safer, better places to live. National Night Out has been celebrated across North America on the first Tuesday of August since 1983. It’s a day when people hold parties to strengthen community cohesiveness and crime resistance, and get to know their neighbors and their local public safety officials. When neighbors get to know each other, they create a connected and safer community.