Disclaimer: The strategies and techniques are offered as general advice or education, this article is not a replacement for mental health treatment. For further advice and help please go to Psychology.org.nz. You can find more information on the mental health services available at this time, contact details, as well as specific advice for coping in the COVID-19 period.
As the weeks of quarantine begin to compound, the impact of isolation on our mental health is beginning to take its toll.
These unique circumstances can exacerbate, or create challenges that your child has either never faced, or is experiencing with a greater salience than before. In being able to preserve our mental health over this time, we have to work for the long haul.
There are many different factors which will be impacting our ability to cope during this time, but our resilience and ability to persevere is critical in preserving our mental health. In this article, we will be discussing some of the main factors that may be affecting your child at this time, and the strategies that can mitigate these pressures.
The importance of self-efficacy
Self-efficacy, or the belief in our own abilities, underpins our confidence and feelings of control over a situation.
When we have little beliefs in our abilities, it can be difficult to build ourselves up to begin a task. Low self-efficacy is expressed by comments like “I will never be good at ____, no matter how hard I try.”
These beliefs can create a negative efficacy performance spiral. Essentially, these beliefs make us less motivated, which in turn leads to a lower quality of work. The feedback students would typically receive for lower-quality work (i.e., that it has issues) reinforces the idea that they are not capable of more, and perpetuates the belief that they cannot improve.
When students struggle with their self-belief, they may also be prone to self-sabotaging. What this means is that students may inadvertently set themselves up for failure, some common examples of this are:
- Staying up late the night before.
- Putting off the task until the last minute.
- Not completing any extra study for a test.
These small actions provide escape-routes for students, as they are able to shift the blame of low performance on outside reasons, rather than themselves.
What this process allows us to do is offset the blame of our performance to other reasons, so that we don’t have to acknowledge that it was something that we had control of (and are therefore responsible for).
Offsetting blame to outside reasons is a tactic that our brain can take, as it protects our ego and allows us to deal with perceived-failure. While this may be true from time-to-time, the ability to take accountability is essential in being able to improve and in turn, have more confidence in our own beliefs.
Just as students can be caught in a negative self-efficacy performance spiral, we can create a positive spiral. Essentially, by creating small wins, and focussing on small improvements, your child’s’ self-efficacy can motivate them instead of being disheartening.
Start small, and work bigger
Like any skill someone wants to work on, they need to start small. Biting off more than they can chew is a sure-fire way for your child to set themselves up for disappointment.
For example, if your child struggles with essay writing, they can break it down piece by piece. Maybe they could start with refining how they write body paragraphs, and practice this, rather than trying to take on the whole task.
It’s important in building up confidence, that it’s worked on in small steps. Especially if someone is feeling low to begin with.
Set achievable goals
Goals are great, they give us something to work towards. However, goals can quickly become more daunting than helpful when they’ve been set at lofty heights.
In line with the above advice, starting smaller with goals is a good idea to keep them manageable, but more importantly, achievable. There is nothing more disheartening than realising you may have set an unrealistic goal for yourself. To avoid this (and the associated emotions of a situation like this), encourage your child to plan out how they will achieve their goal. Here are some questions that could be asked in this process:
- What is the goal?
- Why do you want to achieve this goal?
- Are there any sub-tasks within the larger goal?
- What steps are needed to take?
- How long will it take to achieve this goal?
Doing this, they will see how realistic their goal is, and be able to change accordingly in the planning stages. This will help avoid disappointment later down the road, as your child will be in a much better position to achieve their goals.
The ‘not yet’ strategy
The ‘not yet’ strategy is a reframing technique to help your brain speak to you a bit kinder. Rather than thinking “I haven’t succeeded,” it’s much better to say “I haven’t succeeded yet.” Because this provides the option of being better in the future.
There can be deadlines for certain things, but your child’s educational journey and the amount of information they understand is not one of them. It is a continuous process, and just because something didn’t work out now doesn’t mean it never will.
Using something like the “not yet” strategy can break the negative self-efficacy spiral because failure is not something that demotivates, but pushes us to keep going instead.
Celebrate small successes
When someone is feeling low in their abilities, it is really important to be celebrating the small successes. Making improvement is an individual thing, and everyone is learning different things in different places.
Celebrating the small successes helps your child to recognise the things they have done well, and the improvements they have made. It can be easy to focus on everything you don’t understand, but ultimately, there will always be things we don’t understand. Therefore, it is always more constructive to look at where we’ve come from, rather than where we feel we need to be.
Even after all the planning in the world, it is never certain that we will achieve the goals we’ve set. However, being able to recognise the progress that has been made, regardless of the end goal, will help motivate your child to persist in their studies or wider aspirations.
A students’ beliefs in their ability can make or break a year, especially in such tumultuous times. Going into their learning with the belief that they can succeed is always going to go better for them than believing that they can’t improve from the knowledge of a high-schooler (because they can, and will).
Even now, in Level 3 of the lockdown, we are still under socially-distant conditions, with the bonus of takeaways.
The social disconnection that we are experiencing will be taking its toll. In a world that can sometimes feel too connected, we may be feeling increasingly disconnected at this time.
The feelings of loneliness brought on by the pandemic is referred to as reactive loneliness, as it has been brought on by some outside factor. Over time, these feelings can have wider impacts on other aspects of our lives if left to persist. Impacting our mental, physical, and cognitive wellbeing.
While this is a temporary situation, we cannot judge just how long it will last, and the resulting impact it may have on both you and your child.
Combating social disconnection
Putting it in perspective
One thing you can do is discuss with your child that aloneness doesn’t equal loneliness. Ami Rokach, a clinical psychologist from the University of York adds that “loneliness is not synonymous with chosen isolation or solitude. Rather, loneliness is defined by people’s levels of satisfaction with their connectedness, or their perceived social isolation.”
It’s perfectly normal around this time to be feeling more disconnected from those around us. However, we can balance this feeling with the reminder that we do still have people around us who want to support and help us through this time, albeit from a distance.
Helping your child shift their perception of who and what they have around them can be helpful in reframing their beliefs. Being alone right now doesn’t mean there is no one to depend on.
The influence of social media
Unsurprisingly, social media can perpetuate beliefs about how alone your child may be feeling right now. Being blasted with constant reminders of the situation, and all the things your child could be doing if they weren’t in this situation will have them seeing all the things they’re missing out on. Despite none of it actually happening at this time.
Social media is about a balance, and the knowledge that it is a narrow perspective of someone else’s life. Social media can both help and hinder your child in feeling connected at this time.
Encourage your child to find a balance in using social media for true connection, versus superficial images from people they don’t actually know (e.g., influencers and celebrities).
When used for connection to people they know, social media can be a tool to help your child feel more connected at this time. Conversely, if overexposed to unrealistic expectations, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and disconnection instead.
It’s not about culling social media, but using it in a way that actually connects us to the important people in our lives’.
Regardless of if someone is typically relaxed, or a bit more tightly wound, this time is stressful. With this, worries around the situation can create, or perpetuate anxious feelings.
These could stem from health anxieties, being confined, or if your child already struggles with anxious feelings.
Feeling anxious around this time doesn’t always look the same between two people either. Here are some changes you may notice in your child:
- Excessive worry or sadness
- Poor school performance or avoiding school
- Difficulty with attention and concentration
- Avoidance of activities previously enjoyed
- Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
- Irritability and “acting out” behaviour
- Unexplained headaches or body pain
- Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
This period has created a lot of change and disruption to our everyday lives. It’s normal that your child’s routine has changed as well. Keeping an eye out for a combination of behaviours, and any other changes that you notice that may indicate their stress levels.
There is no one solution for managing anxiety, and in any situation where you are concerned for your child, talk to your health professional, GP, or free call or text 1737 any time to talk to a trained counsellor if you or your child need further support.
Focus on the things that can be controlled
Anxious feelings often arise when we feel that we do not have control over a situation. This may be because we’re unsure about the future, or that we’re not prepared for what the future holds.
Additionally, your child will at least in part, respond to the situation in a similar way to you. Modelling calm behaviour, and some kind of routine will provide some reassurance that they can also manage this time.
So what can be controlled at this time?
- Your sleep, work, and relaxation routines: This is especially important while students are still learning from home. The structure of our days is incredibly important in managing our time, and keeping up with the important things in our life.
- Information intake: There is a lot of information flying about at the moment, and it’s likely that your child is able to independently access it as well. Having open discussion about what is going on, and the key things that may be affecting your child at this time is important in giving your child someone to speak to about the situation, especially if they’re prone to catastrophizing the situation.
- Your home environment: Again, what your child sees around them will influence their perception of the situation. If your home environment is frantic, it’s like that they will be feeling frantic as well. While it’s unrealistic to have a permanently calm environment at home, thinking about the impact of the home space on your child can help keep stress levels lower.
Coping with anxious feelings around this time can be super tough, especially when we are much more limited in the way that we can redirect our frustrations at this time. Focussing on what can be changed and controlled can alleviate some of the stresses at this time, and create a more positive outlook on getting through.
Cognitive distortions are thoughts and beliefs that our brain has us convinced is true when it is not reality. Essentially, these are thoughts that we have that perpetuate different beliefs, despite there being no evidence to support the thought.
Common examples of cognitive distortions in students are:
- Catastrophizing (going to the worst-case scenario when it isn’t)
- Black and white thinking (“I either passed or failed”)
- Overgeneralization or fortune-telling (I failed once so I’ll always fail)
- Discounting the positive (failure makes them more upset than succeeding makes them happy)
Cognitive distortions can be really harmful because they can stop students before they even start, and make them feel failure much more acutely than success. The important thing to remember and communicate with your child is that they are not true. That’s why it’s a distortion.
At this time, cognitive distortions can impact your child’s beliefs about what they can do in this time. By catastrophizing, over generalising, or fortune-telling, your child may be inclined to believe that there isn’t any worth in the work they’ll do over this time.
When your child has these cognitive distortions, it’s super easy for them to disengage because they think they’re going to fail no matter what.
Engaging with cognitive distortions
So, how do we tackle these? The first thing is to identify the cognitive distortion. This is not an easy task when they’re ingrained and hard to spot in your child. Think of some of their initial reactions and comments to this situation though, was there anything they said that concerned you?
The next thing is to rationally examine the evidence for the cognitive distortion with your child, like you’re a judge presiding over a trial. This means to remove you and your child’s personal judgements and just look at the facts.
For example, if your child is struggling to do any work because they don’t see the point in distance learning, you could ask:
- How will what you do now benefit you in the future?
- Why do you feel there isn’t a lot of point to your work at this time?
- Have you been staying updated with any school or class announcements?
Asking these kinds of questions can get your child to think about the messages they’ve been receiving at this time, and whether their beliefs are founded in evidence. Students are hearing a lot about what could happen to their year at the moment both from friends, schools, and other outside sources. It’s important that they understand the most reliable channels, and how their actions are influenced by their thoughts and beliefs around the situation.
“Advice to a friend”
In tackling cognitive distortions, you could use the “advice to a friend method.” Essentially, you help them assess their situation, as though they’re giving advice to a friend. Our mental voice can be a super nasty creature sometimes, and can be prone to spiralling into negativity when under stress.
However, when we talk to our friends, we only want to build them up and make them feel better, because they’re our friend. It can be a lot easier for your child to give a fairer evaluation when advising someone else, and so this can be a good way to break away from your child’s’ opinion of themselves.
“What if I’m wrong?”
Another way to address cognitive distortions is the “what if I’m wrong?” method. The thing about cognitive distortions is that our brain has already accepted the thought as fact. So we don’t consciously question how true it may be in reality.
Asking your child “what if I’m wrong?” Is like putting their distortion on trial and arguing both sides. Present the facts, draw a conclusion, but don’t let their brain feed them lies about their ability to do anything.
Cognitive distortions are tricky, they can be hard to spot, and harder to change. However, breaking them down and being more aware of the way your child is speaking to themselves is super important in ensuring they’re their biggest fan, not biggest critic.
Breaking down cognitive distortions are important in helping your child analyse the way they think, and the resulting actions they take. If your child believes that the rest of this year will be a write-off for them, it is much more likely that this will be the case, and vice versa.
When anyone has years like the one most students have had, they often feel like their whole life is closing in around them and there’s literally no hope. They’re going to feel like it’s just not worth trying or caring anymore. It’s totally normal to feel like that – their life and their reality is like this right now.
However, the stunning and beautiful thing about life is that things are never permanent, and although this year might be terrible, life won’t be terrible forever.
When your child is in this state, the key thing is to think about what they can control. They can continue to work on the things that interest them and will put them in the best place for the rest of their year, for example.
Although hardship is awful to experience, we see it as an opportunity to gain determination, empathy, and courage. It gives us an opportunity to look for hope in ourselves and others when perhaps other people wouldn’t. We’re not sure if you find that helpful or just cringe, but we challenge you to think of you and your child’s situation like this.
We cannot control our hardship at this time, but we can control the actions we take in response to it.