The end of 2020 offers a chance to reflect and reset for the new year.
As the year comes to a close, we will inevitably reflect on how this year has impacted us and our families. On a broader scale, our country experienced the threat from a global pandemic, political divide and civil unrest, causing widespread stress felt by most parents and children alike.
Given the changes these events may have caused in our lives, it is unsurprising that many individuals experienced, and may continue to experience, some level of unease caused by massive uncertainty and a loss of normalcy. For some, substantial psychological disruptions, such as significant levels of anxiety and/or depression may have occurred. For adults and children with trauma histories or other more severe mental health issues, the events that transpired this year may have exacerbated existing symptoms. Interestingly, the stress of this year may have resurfaced previous issues — challenges that you felt you or your child have overcome or dealt with may now require more on-going attention than anticipated.
Within my practice, I have noticed an increase in psychosomatic complaints in particular. Common physical signs of stress and anxiety have increased, including gastrointestinal issues, headaches, brain fog and fatigue, sleep disruptions, jaw clenching and TMJ symptoms, muscle tension, and feeling restless in the body. Others report migraine headaches, hair loss, and weight gain or loss. Children are more likely to experience physical manifestations of anxiety and depression, due to their tendencies to internalize stress and more difficulty verbally expressing their feelings. If you or your child have experienced an onset or worsening of any of these symptoms, it’s important to first check with your doctor or pediatrician and then discuss with a therapist or trained professional if stress may be a contributing factor.
Most notably impacted by the events of this year was our normal methods of social connection and support. Whether we were required to distance ourselves from loved ones or experienced social turmoil within our families and social relationships, it is likely that our interpersonal makeup has been changed in some way. This inherently impacts one of our greatest coping strategies. As social creatures, many of us use socialization as a means of releasing tension and distracting ourselves from the hardships of everyday life. Furthermore, social bonds actually soothe us on a biological level, through the release of feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, which can protect against stress and buffer some of its more harmful effects.
Parenting challenges have also been significant. Along with the diminished opportunities for social support and help with caretaking, parents managed working from home, coordinated and monitored remote or hybrid education, and dealt with more time at home than likely ever before. Moms-to-be confronted even greater challenges, given their necessary interactions with health care professionals, and may have faced doctor’s appointments or even labor and delivery alone, using technology such as FaceTime, or without extended family present at all. Stress is known to impact new mothers, with correlations to the onset of postpartum depression, anxiety and difficulties with breastfeeding. Pregnancy and postpartum are difficult at any time, but the additional stressors related to the pandemic have made this time almost unbearable for some mothers.
Dealing with stress often involves checking-in internally and making note of the less helpful thoughts and the accompanied negative emotions we experience. While cultivating compassion, acceptance and patience are proven ways to increase pleasant emotions, this can be extremely challenging under stressful conditions. In addition, calming down our nervous system and stress response can also can be achieved through breathing exercises, a meditation practice and/or physical exercise. It is remarkable how introducing these strategies, even if only for a few minutes a day, can result in meaningful changes to our mind and feelings in our body.
Within our families, we can focus on shifting perspectives — rather than fixating on negative thoughts and disappointment on how things have changed, have there been new opportunities or positive changes that have occurred? If these feel few and far between, make it a goal for the coming year to reinvest in things that bring joy, as it is likely the distractions of this year have distanced us from even small chances to find happiness. These could be as simple as picking back up an old hobby or finding more time to spend in nature. Although our social circles may need to remain small to comply with public health guidance, it is vital to find ways to stay connected, as we all share the mutual values and inherent need for relationships, connection and community.
Ultimately, what is good for us is good for our children. Managing our own stress and anxiety helps model self-soothing and coping strategies and leads to fewer arguments and decreased tension in the home. Children may also benefit from alone time — as much as children’s desire to be around siblings and other friends seems insatiable, especially if they are not getting this in school, quiet time for restoration remains important. Additional strategies for helping children and teens deal with stress include creating a routine, ensuring they are getting enough time outside and physical exercise, and offering outlets for emotional and creative expression.
Although many unknowns continue to persist, the new year gives us a chance to commemorate a milestone — we have made it to the end of 2020. While some of us have thrived in the adversity, some simply survived. For parents, it’s important to share with our children that both are acceptable outcomes of the year. We can remind our children to have compassion for ourselves and others, as we all did the best we could, given the set of circumstances. While we can help our children set intentions for the coming year, 2020 taught us all to manage our expectations, as roadblocks in life are inevitable. Although these challenges may derail us from our goals, we can move forward and learn to tolerate discomfort. These are all important lessons for your child’s development and growth and will ultimately help them face new obstacles in the future.
In the next year, we have another opportunity to stay focused on the present realities we know to be true and what we can control in the moment, rather than holding on to resentment about the past or anticipating or worrying about what’s to come. We likely cannot put everything behind us; instead, we can find appreciation for what we have and what we have overcome.
Meagan Stanley, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice offering therapy services in Newport Beach, San Diego and across California through teletherapy. She specializes in helping adolescents and young adults overcome difficult life transitions, offering parenting support and consultation, and delivering compassion-focused therapy for teenage girls struggling with depression, anxiety, social difficulties and self-esteem issues, including negative body image.
Photo courtesy of (Ann Danilina/Unsplash)