Keeping Your Student Mentally Healthy
Naomi Allen, co-founder and CEO of Brightline based in San Francisco
When schools abruptly closed last March, many parents worried about how this would affect their kids emotionally and mentally. With many schools continuing online learning in the new school year, those fears have likely increased.
Enter Naomi Allen, co-founder and CEO of Brightline based in San Francisco. The new digital therapy platform launched last October aims to help kids and parents who are stuck at home. It connects children to psychiatrists, therapists and coaches, and offers free online parenting classes that help with many of the issues related to raising children during a pandemic.
Allen was inspired to start Brightline after trying to get help for her 7-year-old son, who was experiencing a number of behavioral health symptoms. She spent months trying to find treatment for him. When he did start treatment, she felt like there was little communication from his specialists regarding how he was progressing.
Allen hopes Brightline will help families avoid these problems. Clinicians, she says, work as a team, which can be very helpful for children like her son who have multiple issues.
Allen spoke with Bay Area Parent about how parents can help their kids emotionally and mentally when starting the school year.
For more information about Brightline, go to hellobrightline.com.
Will starting the school year at home affect children mentally?
I think we’re already seeing a real crisis with COVID-19, setting aside that we are going into a prolonged period of distance learning. Recent studies show that one in four kids are dealing with anxiety and depression, 65 percent of kids are struggling with boredom and isolation, 50 percent said they are worried. We already know we are at a key point of crisis as a country.
One of the things we’re doing for families is that we built the first assessment tool for families to evaluate the COVID behavioral health risk for their children, and we are going to be publishing that in a few weeks. The idea is, as a mom, the way I used to gauge my kids’ well-being was by talking to other parents, whether at T-ball practice or after school or at a moms’ group. We used to have a way to gauge how our kids are doing mentally, behaviorally, socially. Now we’ve lost that mechanism for informal evaluation as a parent. I think that is going to be really problematic. I think that is causing a lot of stress and anxiety for parents. We are publishing the first widely available instrument, that has a clinical background, for parents to be able to gauge how much their child is at risk of developing behavioral problems as a result of COVID.
How can parents help their kids if they are having mental health issues?
It depends on what is going on with the child. For example, for kids who have anxiety, generalized anxiety or social anxiety, it can be a different approach than for kids who have ADHD. … A kid with ADHD may struggle with focusing on classes, whereas a kid with social anxiety may struggle in different ways.
If a child is 5 or 6 or 7, that’s really dealing with things like: Are my parents going to get sick? Am I going to be able to see my friends again at school? If I see them again, am I going to be able to hug them?
Kids that are very young with anxiety are dealing with their immediate realm of control. So often, one of the challenges for parents is that we feel the weight of anxiety from what’s going on in the world. So, when you talk to a child about what’s going on, you need to calibrate it so you are specifically talking about stuff going on in their realm of control. When talking to older kids who have a better understanding, [it means] reassuring those kids that their loved ones are safe and healthy and you are doing everything to keep them safe and that this is a difficult time but it will pass.
If a child is really struggling with ADHD or executive function disorder as it relates to school, then it’s a different set of tools. You need to set a visual routine, a visual calendar around what’s going to happen each day. Having the child step through the calendar each morning is a great routine. … Setting up a visual calendar can be really helpful. Take pictures of the child doing these things: A picture of the child having breakfast at 7 a.m., 9 a.m. we get dressed, 9:30 a.m. we check in on Zoom, 10 a.m. we have recess.
Can parents’ attitudes toward distance learning and the pandemic affect their child’s mental health and outlook?
Absolutely. That’s why I was saying you should create some distance — especially for kids that have anxiety — between the heavy stuff you as a parent are carrying and what they can manage. … Parents need to carve out a time to talk about these situations and not talk about it in front of the kids – leaning on positivity while also listening to their concerns, shielding them as much as possible from the anxiety we as parents are feeling. You should have times of the day when the kids aren’t around to talk to your spouse about what’s coming up in the school year and how you are going to manage it. You should try to create some positivity for the back-to-school routine. Whether that’s having the first day of school photo or a new outfit. Try to have some positivity for the first day of school.
How can teachers help students maintain good mental health through this?
Continuing well-being check-ins, even during remote education. Increasing awareness of and sensitivity to aspects that may make remote learning really challenging for some kids such as those with executive functioning challenges, anxiety about being on the screen with other children. It is important that children do not experience the challenges of negotiating online education as punitive.
What are some warning signs that your child may be having some mental health issues?
Sleeping and eating changes. Increased irritability or withdrawal. Heightened reactivity. Increased separation anxiety, such as wanting the security of parents with them. Regressive behaviors.
Do you think there may be some long-term effects on children's mental health from distance learning and living through COVID-19?
I don't think distance learning, in and of itself, is going to be overarchingly detrimental to children. I am more worried about what they aren't getting, like social time with peers, than what they are getting, like more time on screens with distance learning. That said, I encourage parents to limit screen time even more mindfully outside of school hours now that children are doing so much online. I also encourage parents to find positive ways for kids to get time with friends, whether it is a socially distanced hello in a park or sidewalk, or a chat online.
Do you think it will affect children's socialization skills?
Children are resilient. This generation of kids going through this time together will still find ways to connect meaningfully long term. I do think, though, that the re-entry to large group settings like school, after a prolonged period of social isolation, may be a bumpy road for some kids, particularly for those who are experiencing spikes in social anxiety or behavioral disruption without the practice of being with other children. There are very likely currently unknown manifestations of this experience that we will see in time to come.
Life's challenges – even this one we are all living through right now – are not avoidable, so parents do the best they can to get their kids and families through it.
Providing structure and predictability where it's possible, such as family dinners, keeping time to connect and be with the kids without distractions – bedtime is good for that – will provide space for children to process what they are experiencing with their parents. Consistent, loving, supportive interactions are key to building resiliency, as is modeling how to cope with tough stuff.
Parents can give themselves a break if the day isn't perfect in this regard – many days won't be. Tomorrow will offer another opportunity to keep at it.