Fostering Mental Wellness for Families Who Have Kids Heading Back to School

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August 6, 2020
Mother Putting a Face Mask on her Son

African American Mental Health and Wellness (AMEN) team is collaborating with KAZI FM 88.7 in producing a radio series to highlight the importance of addressing mental health and physical wellness in the African American community. The monthly series will feature AMEN team members from the School of Nursing, leaders from Mt. Zion Baptist and Rehoboth Baptist churches, and community organizations who provide mental health resources and support in Travis County.

Episode 10: Fostering Mental Wellness for Families Who Have Kids Heading Back to School

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Co-moderators Shannon W. Jones and Jacki Hecht, interviewed Mr. Shechem Sauls, School Mental Health Coordinator for AISD, Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez, School Bilingual Clinical Psychologist at Vida Clinic Behavioral Health and Dr. Kimberly Wilson, Clinical Supervisor for AISD.

In typical circumstances this would be an exciting time for kids and families, as they return to school to meet their teachers and see their friends again. Yet, our current circumstances are anything but typical -- as kids prepare to return to school in the midst of this continuing pandemic.

We spoke to our guests about ways to foster mental wellness for parents and kids as they prepare to go back to school during these unusual times.

How the pandemic has impacted mental health among parents and their children

Dr. Rodriguez acknowledged the pandemic is “upending our lives” and increasing stress that we feel daily. She went on to say, “Families are experiencing high levels of stress… seeing loved ones and family members become ill, possibly losing family members to COVID-19, as well as the stressors that occur because of the economic loss (loss of income) and the uncertainty of what will happen.” Dr. Rodriguez emphasizes that this fear of the unknown, which can be hard to understand, is especially hard for children.

She also noted that the pandemic has resulted in changed routines, which is troubling to children, for whom routine is so important. Some changes include school schedules, online learning, parents’ work schedules (loss of work, working from home), which create a sense of instability. This has resulted in feelings of anxiety, irritability, sadness and hopelessness due to the losses related to this pandemic. In addition, parents and children have difficulty managing their frustration and being patient during this time of stress.

What parents and children can do to maintain their well-being during these difficult times

Mr. Sauls started by talking about what parents can do; “[E]stablish healthy habits…making sure that they put themselves in bed before midnight, getting a full night’s rest and then waking up in the morning before the family, if possible, to have some time to just prepare themselves for the day.” Parents can also consider going to the gym, focusing on prayer in the home or meditation time. Mr. Sauls offered recommendations for people wanting to become active: join online social groups, namely “A Better Me” program led by Marva Overton. He also suggested creating family Zoom calls to connect with loved ones. You can make it a game where a family member locates someone they have lost touch with over the years and reintroduce them to the family. He also echoed Dr. Rodriguez’s point to create routines for children. Routines are so important during this time; parents can begin their morning with some sort of routine with their children; an activity outside such as, walking or exercise. This can also be the way the parent and child end their day. Mr. Sauls offers some personal examples of how he creates routines for his own son that has strengthened their bond. Time spent with children and strengthening bonds becomes important, as a way to minimize the depression and anxiety among parents and children that Dr. Rodriquez mentioned earlier.

Warning signs for depression or anxiety in children

Dr. Wilson described that anxiety looks different for each person, but there are some unique signs that parents can become familiar with. Dr. Wilson shared, “One sign is a change in behavior. Are there mood swings, are they acting out, extra sensitive, are they clingy?” She also stated, “For older kids… they may be mouthier, more irritable…or they may resort to lying or bullying their siblings or others. For younger kids they may regress to bed wetting…present with somatic issues such as headaches or stomach aches.” Dr. Wilson encourages parents to talk about the changes and ask questions about how their kids are feeling about going back to school or having a virtual class room assignment. If parents are able to introduce their own concerns or fears, it may help to normalize the situation. She also offers ideas to create routines and engage in kinetic movement such as gaming, dancing, singing in terms of playful engagement.

Staying Safe During COVID

Shannon Jones offered reminders for how to reduce likelihood of exposure and ways to stay safe during COVID, citing the most updated recommendations by CDC:

  1. If you are going out, make sure you wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth
  2. When you are out, keep a physical distance of 6 feet
  3. Do not go out to large events or clubs
  4. When you come in from the outside, use sanitizers to clean your hands, door knobs or other things that may have been exposed
  5. Get tested to know your status

Please access the resources below to learn more about how best to prepare for school, whether online or in person, and the measures schools have taken to keep students, teachers and staff safe as schools reopen.  

  • Visit Alliance for African American Health in Central Texas (AAAHCT): A Better Me Program.
  • To stay in the know for back to school schedules and news please visit Austin ISD.
  • A great media resource to help prepare parents and kids for returning to school Austin ISD TV.
  • Vida Clinic provides quality mental health care to individuals, families, and organizations. For more information about or to enroll in services, please visit Vida Clinic or call 512-518-2209.  
  • Access AISD student health services.
  • For updated information on how to stay safe and access needed resources during COVID-19 visit Austin Public Health.

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