12-Step Guide to Better Family Mental Wellness

If you’re a parent or caregiver of a child, you probably don’t need to be told that there’s a mental health crisis among our youth. You might even be seeing it in your own kids, or those you know. You might feel overwhelmed or exhausted about it. You might feel like you’re on your own. 

You’re not.

“This has been difficult for everybody,” COVID Support VT Clinical Supervisor Cath Burns, Ph.D. told participants in a recent parenting workshop. Burns is a licensed clinical psychologist and quality director of Vermont Care Partners. She is also a mom to two teenagers. She has seen first-hand the effects of the added layer of pandemic stressors on top of adolescence. 

Join the next parenting workshop with Cath Burns Jan. 26: Parenting to Promote Mental Health and Wellness in Children and Youth. Register here.

“Childhood and adolescence are times of life when kids are learning who they are and trying out new identities,” Burns says. “They’ve essentially missed out on two years of social development by being mostly isolated at home.”

Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide were already rising in children and teens before Covid. Many relied on school-based services for mental health and behavioral issues, and many of these supports became inaccessible. Now there is such a great need for services that the mental healthcare system can’t keep up. This has exacerbated a problem that existed long before Covid.

The impact of the pandemic on the mental well-being of youth of all ages has raised alarm bells worldwide. The U.S. Surgeon General recently issued a rare Public Health Advisory warning of the acute crisis in youth mental health. This followed a declaration of emergency by three of the nation’s leading professional pediatric organizations. Here in Vermont, the state legislature recently held hearings as part of its effort to alleviate critical mental healthcare workforce shortages at a time of increasing demand.

12-Step Pandemic Parenting

Burns is a big advocate of modeling self-care and healthy coping for children. “Our kids are watching us – for better or worse. If you are taking care of yourself and modeling that for your kids, they will notice that. Let them learn healthy habits from you.” 

Modeling healthy behavior is at the top of her list of strategies to promote mental wellness in children and youth.

  1. Maintain and model healthy habits. Eat well, maintain healthy sleep hygiene, move your body daily, and set limits on technology use, especially before bedtime.
  2. Build and maintain meaningful connections. Think about who you would call if everyone in your whole family was sick. Those are the people to reach out to. Help your kids understand who their support networks are. 

“Don’t let stigma or shame get in the way of asking people for help, and teach your children that through example.”

~ Cath Burns, Ph.D., Clinical Supervisor for COVID Support Vt
  1. Listen and promote coping skills. Help your kids keep things in perspective. Focus on the present and what they can do now. Help them learn how to calm their body and manage stress.
  2. Explore interests and activities. Take the initiative to help them find things they like. “A lot of kids – and adults – have forgotten how to have fun,” Burns says. “Help them learn to do that every day.” 
  3. Monitor substance use. This includes drugs and alcohol, in ourselves and our kids. To those, Burns adds stimulants like coffee, sugar and junk food. If you or your child is reaching for substances as a stress reliever, look for other options.
  4. Give back. Find one thing you can do every day to feel like you’re contributing to someone else’s well-being. It could be writing a note to someone, visiting a neighbor who’s alone, or volunteering somewhere. You will both benefit.
  5. Practice and model “stress tolerance.” Stress is inevitable, unavoidable, and temporary. It will eventually end. It’s up to us to find a way to manage how we react to it, how we get through. Teach resilience as a life skill.
  6. Model and set appropriate goals. Start small, especially for kids who are anxious or depressed, who can be easily overwhelmed. As kids gain mastery over small steps, bigger steps will come. “Declare the day a success early and often,” says Burns.
  7. Be in touch with your kid’s school. This is especially important if your child has a 504 or IEP. Think about who at your kid’s school you could connect with. Is there an adult your child talks about? A coach or music teacher? One other trusted adult in a child’s life can make a huge difference.
  8. Develop a plan that considers safety. If you’re concerned your child might hurt himself or have suicidal thoughts, talk about it. “You will not cause suicide or self-harm by asking them outright. Be ready to listen and come up with a plan to help them,” Burns says.
  9. Stay in “orbit” with your child as a family. Work together in the same room, or engage them in a game or outdoor activity. Be available. “I like to make cookies and see who shows up,” Burns says of her life with two teenagers.
  10. Practice and model self-compassion and acceptance. “This is the most important one of all,” says Burns. “We’re all doing the best we can. And that’s enough right now. If we can let go of the expectation of perfection and be gentle with ourselves, maybe our kids will follow our example.”

Learn More and Find Resources

Join the next parenting workshop with Cath Burns Jan. 26: Parenting to Promote Mental Health and Wellness in Children and Youth. Register here.

For Kids:

Burns recommends these workbooks as something to look at together with your child, rather than something to ask your child to do alone. Do so at a time when you both have the energy for it – not right before bedtime. Take small bites, at least at first. 

  • Teen Topical Series by Lisa Schab, including The Anxiety Workbook for Teens: Activities to help you deal with anxiety and worry and Beyond the blues: A workbook to help teens overcome depression 
  • School-Aged “What to do when…” Series by Dawn Huebner & Bonnie Matthews exploring how to cope with anxiety, imperfection, anger, OCD, sleep, and other topics.

For Parents:

  • American Psychological Association’s Resilience Guide for Parents and Teachers.
  • Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents – Wilson & Lyons 
  • Talking Back to OCD: The Program That Helps Kids and Teens Say “No Way” — and Parents Say “Way to Go” – Marsh 
  • Siblings without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too – FaRber 
  • How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk – Farber 
  • How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2 – 7 – Farber

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at www.COVIDSupportVT.org.

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the COVIDSupportVT.org website, plus Multilingual Resources.

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

Share This