It hasn’t been an easy spring and summer for anyone, but I have an extra dose of empathy for parents working from home. My daughter went back to daycare full-time in June and it was our family’s saving grace. For eight weeks, my husband and I played a punishing game of work and childcare jujutsu. I can only imagine how taxing it’s been on folks who have been on parental duty 24-7 ever since the lock-down. Moms and dads everywhere are flat-out exhausted and single parents deserve extra props. So do families with special needs or any pre-existing conditions. Bless them all.
That said, our kids deserve empathy too.
In Canada, an estimated 1.2 million children and youth are affected by mental illness. By age 25, that number rises to a staggering 7.5 million. That’s approximately one in five Canadians. And those figures are pre-pandemic. According to a recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the virus has taken a significant toll on the well-being of kids around the world. As the authors write, “ We owe it to our children and young people to proactively measure the indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their health and take steps to mitigate the collateral damage.”
With that in mind, here are 5 ways to bolster children’s mental health:
1) Explore the great outdoors
Stats Canada suggests that children should get at least 60 minutes of exercise per day. Unfortunately, onlyone third of Canadian children do. According to the American Heart Association, time in nature helps relieve stress and anxiety, improves one’s mood, and boosts feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Being outdoors also reduces anger, fear, blood pressure, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones like cortisol.
Make it a point to take an evening walk around the block with your children, and on the weekend, fly a kite or toss a frisbee. CBC has compiled a list of ways you can engage in outdoor activities as a family and Participaction is another great resource.
2) Engage in gratitude and mindfulness practices
While doing my PhD about empathy, I learned the human brain cannot be in a state of anxiety and grace simultaneously. One of the quickest ways to combat anxiety is to turn up the gratitude dial. Research also links feeling grateful and the ability to express gratitude with improved relationships and happiness.
Over dinner or at bedtime, get into the habit of asking your kid(s): “What are you grateful for today?” It’s also never too early to introduce them to mindfulness. There are plenty of meditation apps on the market, including these six designed for children compiled by Parents magazine.
3) Dive into arts and crafts
According to the Brookings Institute, “Engaging with art is essential to the human experience. Almost as soon as motor skills are developed, children communicate through artistic expression. The arts challenge us with different points of view, compel us to empathize with ‘others,’ and give us the opportunity to reflect on the human condition.”
The American Journal of Public Health also acknowledges that “engagement with artistic activities, either as an observer of the creative efforts of others or as an initiator of one’s own creative efforts, can enhance one’s moods, emotions, and other psychological states as well as have a salient impact on important physiological parameters.”
Plus, arts and crafts are fun! (Not to mention, they can keep kids busy for hours!)
Here are a couple of resources to check out:
4) Let kids enjoy some (high-quality) screen time
In preparation for a TEDx talk I gave a few years ago, I discovered that smartphones, ipads and Xboxes are like digital drugs to kids. Regular use increases dopamine and decreases impulse control. Just like cocaine. I also learned that tech addiction among youth is getting really serious. Not only is all their screen-time reconfiguring their neural networks, it’s also correlated to anxiety, depression and self-injury. No wonder we’re all feeling anxious and guilty about relying on tech to keep our kids occupied during COVID.
Gratefully, we can cut ourselves some slack. According to Jennifer Shapka, a faculty of education associate professor at UBC, “Even if they spend more time than usual on these devices, it’s not going to suddenly put them on a negative trajectory… You’re not breaking your children.” Still, if they’re going to spend more time with gadgets, you may want to expose them to high-quality programming. PBS KIDS is “committed to making a positive impact on the lives of children through curriculum-based entertainment.” Here’s a list of some of their shows. For older tweens or teens, I recommend exploring MediaSmarts, a non-profit organization committed to helping youth become responsible digital citizens.
For age 2+: Sesame Street
For age 3+: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
For age 4+: Sid the Science Kid
For age 5+: The Electric Company
For age 6+: Design Squad Nation
5) Help children unpack what’s happening in the world
Our natural reflex may be to shield our kids from complex issues and disturbing events playing out in the world. After all, there’s no upside to COVID-19 or the tragic murder of George Floyd. But they’re seeing images of BLM marches and hearing about pandemic deaths all the same. Which can be confusing, anxiety-provoking and sometimes even traumatic.
That’s why it’s important to engage in dialogue about the pandemic and systemic racism. Anxiety Canada recommends asking your kids what they already know, what their worries are, and what they’re confused about. This article offers age-appropriate prompt questions to help you get started. Dr. Shu-Chen (Jenny) Yen wrote a children’s book to help kids feel less anxious called: “Something strange happened in my city: A social story about the coronavirus pandemic for children.” You can watch a video recording of me reading it here.
When it comes to discussing race and racism, this ABC resource (which includes several helpful videos) acknowledges “There’s no ‘one way’ to dive into this topic. But, there are better ways to go about it.” Finally, Today’s Parent offers this list of children’s books to help you talk to your kids about racism.
Finally, as you extend empathy to the children in your life and create space for them to share how they’re feeling, please be kind to yourself too. A few weeks ago, I interviewed Seth Shugar, a family therapist and life coach about coping mechanisms for children and parents during this unprecedented time. He describes two powerful tools in this video.
Bottom line: When it comes to our children’s mental health – and our own – empathy matters more than ever.
PS Join the Purposeful Empathy community. Together, let’s spread more empathy in the world.
For more than a decade, I have been singularly focused on leveraging empathy for personal and social transformation. I teach Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation at McGill University and co-founder of PVM-Studio, a global advisory firm that supports purpose-driven people and organizations. Learn more about my work here.