The Boston Museum of Science’s September talk on Children’s Mental Health was an eye-opening discussion about how scientists, doctors, and policy makers can work together to put forth policy that would improve the mental health of our children and dispel any stigmas associated with these issues. With temperatures dropping and the holidays around the corner, I caught up with Dr. Mathieu Bermingham to follow up on his insights from the talk and to see what kinds of advice he had for helping children cope with the holiday blues in lockdown.
Here are 5 ways caretakers can help their children get through the pandemic stress this holiday season:
1. Spend time outdoors.
“There is no health without mental health, but it’s very hard to have mental health if you don’t have physical health as well,” said Dr. Bermingham.
Increased childhood obesity and vitamin D deficiency are among the unintended health consequences of the pandemic, resulting from our efforts to stay home and reduce our chances of contracting the virus. Any amount of outdoor recreation, including going for a short walk, can help reduce the risk of both.
Additionally, studies in ecotherapy have shown that spending as little as half an hour in green, leafy areas can increase children’s attention span to a degree that is comparable with taking stimulants for ADHD.
“We’re designed to be connected to nature, so the simple solution is to not get disconnected,” said Dr. Bermingham.
Listen to their words and their actions. According to Dr. Bermingham, often when children are under stress, “they don’t talk, they act.”
“Kids don’t come to us with instructions about how to meet their needs,” said Dr. Bermingham, “but they do let us know and most often they let us know by their behavior. Our job is to decipher and interpret what that behavior means.”
Several mental and emotional health benefits have been linked to play in children, but perhaps most notably during the pandemic, playing with children is one way they can maintain positive social relationships, a key coping mechanism in lockdown.
Dr. Bermingham emphasized the importance of imaginative play, which is especially important for children’s neural development.
Additionally, studies on play therapy have shown that children tend to talk to adults through play.
“Play is the language of children.” -Dr. Bermingham
4. Stick to a routine.
Routine is one of Dr. Bermingham’s “3 R’s,” which he spoke about in September’s Museum of Science event on Children’s Mental Health: Routine, recreation, and relation.
Studies have shown that children thrive in organized and predictable environments. Providing such an environment can be more challenging during the holidays (especially this year), but maintaining a sense of normalcy is one way we can make it easier for children to cope during difficult times. The CDC has resources on creating structure for toddlers and preschoolers.
5. Lead by example.
It is important to remember that children often mirror our actions and behaviors — if you are being proactive in caring for your physical and mental health, there is a better chance your child will follow suit. (Our series on Caring For You Mental Health might help get you moving in the right direction).
Additional resources from Dr. Bermingham:
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (book)
Resources for Helping Kids and Parents Cope Amidst COVID-19 from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
Coronavirus Pandemic: How Can We Reduce Long-Term Impact on Children’s Mental Health? by Dr. Mary Margaret Gleason (article)
Written by Nikita Duke, GBH Forum Network’s intern. Nikita Duke is a graduate student at New York University and is from Cumberland, RI.