Coping with COVID: Exhausted families

Right now, many of us are feeling mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted from the ongoing stress of living through a pandemic. Both kids and adults can experience exhaustion, where they may feel depleted, like they are running on empty, using up all their physical and emotional energy without a chance to recharge.

Family walks together down a mountain road, with two parents holding a child’s hands in the middle.

In this episode of our Coping with COVID podcast series, Kira Mauseth, PhD and Doug Dicharry, MD talk about how exhaustion affects both children and adults, and strategies for families to cope as we make our way through the pandemic.

If you find yourself feeling exhausted, it’s not just you. Many people are feeling it after months of juggling health precautions, different routines, and new ways to work and parent. The brain eventually gets tired and overworked from long periods of stress, which makes it harder to pause and respond logically to things that set us off. People who are burned out might have a range of symptoms and notice changes in the way they feel, think, and act.

Right now, adults might be experiencing:

  • Irritability or angry outbursts
  • Lack of motivation
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • Suspiciousness or being hyper-alert
  • Headaches or stomachaches

Common behaviors in children and teens include:

  • Moodiness or irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • School performance below their potential
  • Unexplained stomachaches or headaches
  • Regression, or acting much younger than their age

These are all normal reactions to an abnormal situation, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s important to understand these experiences so we can take steps to get through it.

Coping strategies for exhausted families

There are some things you can do to help you and your family cope. Don’t worry about trying to do them all at once. Start with one and gradually incorporate it into your life. Remember, different strategies work for different people, so do what works best for your family.

  • Get some sleep. Both kids and adults need enough sleep each night to give tired brains a rest. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, and take naps during the day if you need to catch up.
  • Create routines. Be adaptable to changes and find a new schedule that works for your family. Consider having kids complete a daily checklist, and reward them for keeping a routine.
  • Spend time with children. Carve out some special time each day to connect. Try getting together as a family to read, draw, or play board games or charades.
  • Communicate openly and honestly. Take the time to ask, listen, and respond to your kids’ concerns. Try to understand their feelings before you respond, and keep the door open so they can come to you when they’re ready.
  • Have a sense of humor. You’ve maybe heard the saying “laughter is the best medicine,” and it’s true that laughter can decrease stress hormones in your body. Make it a point find ways to bring a few moments of humor into your day. Even teens will appreciate a light-hearted moment, although they might not show it.
  • Encourage relationship building. Help kids stay in touch with friends and family. Set up some time to get together virtually with grandparents and other family members. Schedule virtual playdates for kids to see their friends, or encourage them to stay connected on social media.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Change isn’t always easy, but we are resilient. If you are feeling signs of burnout or compassion fatigue that make it hard to function in day-to-day life, then it may be time to get help. Finally, don’t give up on the process. You’ll find the things that work for you and your family as you try out different coping strategies.

To find more resources for mental health during COVID-19, visit our mental and emotional wellbeing webpage or check out our Behavioral Health Toolbox for Families. If you need someone to talk to about stress due to COVID-19, call Washington Listens at 1–833–681–0211.

More information

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Information in this blog changes rapidly. Check the state’s COVID-19 website for up-to-date and reliable info at coronavirus.wa.gov.

Answers to your questions or concerns about COVID-19 in Washington state may be found at our website. You can also contact the Department of Health call center at 1–800–525–0127 and press # from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday — Friday, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday — Sunday. Language assistance is available.

Please note that this call center cannot access COVID-19 testing results. For testing inquiries or results, please contact your health care provider.

Transcript

- [Narrator] Welcome to a Washington State Department of Health podcast on coping with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, your hosts for the show, disaster psychologist Kira Mauseth and child and adolescent psychiatrist Doug Dicharry.

- Welcome to this episode of the Washington State Department of Health Behavioral Health Podcast. I’m Doug Dicharry.

- And I’m Kira Mauseth.

- Today we’re talking about families and burnout. If you’re caring for children right now while also trying to get through a pandemic, you’ve got a lot going on. So in addition to trying to stay healthy, most families are navigating changes in schooling. There are unpredictable schedules. There are challenges with online learning. Parents having to manage both work and their children’s schoolwork and — and other issues as well.

- Yeah. And I just have to add to that, that, you know, we’ve been at this for a long time, but it feels like we’ve been struggling with this for years sometimes and also a day at other times. Our sense of time is kind of out of whack, and there are a lot of other difficulties that people are experiencing as a result of the lengthiness of this experience that are overlapping with all of the family demands and the responsibilities that people have right now. Part of what’s going on is that we’re just really physically exhausted. We’re exhausted on a very, very basic neurological level, because we’ve been experiencing so much stress that’s built up over such a long period of time. And one of the things that happens as a result of that is that we’re much more likely right now to respond from an emotional place. We’re much more likely to respond kind of impulsively, because our brains don’t have the patience, for lack of a better word, to take a minute to try and respond logically, to sort of think about what might be the best option here and what — what can I do? We tend to just jump in, and we tend to respond with a more threat assessment sort of an approach. So our brains are scanning for threats, and we’re gonna respond more impulsively, and we all tend to respond more emotionally. And you can imagine you where that’s causing trouble for people at home and at work. And kids are undergoing the same kind of experience. They’re having trouble with that regulation piece too.

- Right. Yeah, you’ll notice particularly in children, they may be performing below their potential. They may seem more moody or irritable than usual. And it’s very common for children to have sleep problems if they’re stressed. They may have, particularly younger children, you may have physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches that really can’t be explained by any physical problems. Or you may notice that the kids are acting like they’re much younger. They may seem to be clingy or behaving as if they’re a young child. You hear baby talk or some regressive kind of behaviors.

- Yeah. And you know, the same is true for teenagers, for sure. I work with a lot of teens, and parents are talking to me about some of these younger behaviors that they’re seeing in teenagers just kinda acting like they did a couple of years ago. And when things change so quickly for kids, you know, they grow up so quickly and they reached these developmental milestones so quickly, it’s kind of strange to parents to see kids acting like a younger version of themselves. But that is very common right now, as you were mentioning.

- Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And how ‘bout coping strategies? I mean, things that people can do. We can talk a bit about how to counteract or prevent burnout.

- I guess the first thing I would start out by mentioning is that all of the things that we’re suggesting and that we’re talking about today are not things that are designed to make anybody work any harder. So the coping skills and the strategies that we’re talking about today are really designed to facilitate ease and to make things better and easier, but not add to the list. Like, not add to the to-do list for anybody. Any of these things are good options. If there are some that seem like they’re not a good fit for you, then that’s fine. And maybe try something different. I’m a big fan of not doing something if it’s not working for you, and finding a better fit. There’s a lot of options to pick from. And what works for self-care for some folks does not work for others. So that’s a good thing to keep in mind too. Yeah. Any other thoughts, Doug?

- Yeah, just to back up a moment, I did want to mention that in terms of the impacts that we spoke about, it’s important to keep in mind that many of these things are normal reactions to an abnormal situation. People sometimes worry about, “Well, is this what’s wrong with me, do I need to get help for this?” But often these are problems that are actually very typical and very normal for an abnormal situation. If they get out of hand, if they are something that are really impairing your functioning, then that’s when you might need to seek additional help. We’ll mention something more about that. But in terms of the coping strategies, I would say, particularly for children, it’s important to stick with fundamentals. Try to try to wake up at the same time every day. It’s okay to take naps to catch up. Have kids participate in a calendar or a checklist. There can be little rewards like stickers or an end-of-the-week treat for younger children. And find some special time. Try to carve out just a few minutes every day. You can also enlist family members. For example, grandparents are often willing to put in some special time on a virtual platform like Zoom, for example. Have a virtual story time with grandparents. It’s a great help for many families. And get back to basics. You can have interactive board games, play a game of Chutes and Ladders with the younger kids or a game of Monopoly with the older ones. Drawing, charades, reading fun stories. But just try to carve out a little special time for the kids each day. It can mean a lot. And when you talk with them, be sure that you try to understand what they’re concerned with. Try to ask, listen, respond to their concerns. Parents are often eager to reassure and may actually be giving information that might go over their heads or might be issues that they’re not even concerned about. So try to — try to really get a sense of where they are with that. And help children stay in touch with their friends. It may be something like a virtual play date or appropriate use of social media. And finally, if you’re feeling stressed, be sure to take time to stop and assess and figure out what it is that’s really getting to you. Find a quiet time, try to figure out what the main stressors are, because often it may be just one or two things that are really getting to you, that if you can address those, you’ll find the rest of the day goes much more easily. But pick a strategy and gradually work it in. Anything you’d add to that, Kira?

- Yeah, I really like the idea of identifying that stressor, like maybe those one or two things that are the bigger priority. There was something that I was taught a long time ago, which is that when you name the dragon, it loses its power. And so when there’s something-

- Oh, that’s good.

- Yeah. When you identify what that thing is that’s just been bothering you and sort of just keeping you up maybe at night, then write it down. Figure out a way to address it in a very concrete way. And that allows it to not have power over you anymore. I would echo the same thing in terms of anxiety generally as a coping skill. I think a lot of parents make the mistake of over-focusing on kids’ anxiety. And it’s great to reassure. Kids need to be reassured, especially, I’m thinking, in the teenage realm of things. But by giving too much attention to whatever the thing is that someone is anxious about, you know, it’s a better strategy in the long run to acknowledge the thing, and reassure about whatever it is, and then move forward with the active coping skill. And sort of modeling that.

- Right.

- Especially for teenagers. Modeling emotion regulation. Modeling, “I’m gonna step back now, and I’m gonna take a breath before I respond.” Or modeling, “Yeah, you know, I’m really worried about this thing too. But I’m gonna try and address it. I’m gonna name the dragon, and I’m gonna find something that I can do that’s going to help me feel less anxious about it.” And active coping is really, really helpful rather than avoiding. So it’s a little bit complicated.

- That’s a great point.

- Yeah. I mean, many of the things that you mentioned already are applicable for adults as well. So I would just really emphasize the sleep hygiene piece about going to bed at the same time and trying to wake up at the similar time every day. Getting a really good routine. We have had to really be adaptable and flexible in the context of this disaster. And it’s interesting, but adaptability and flexibility really goes well also with having boundaries around that. So I kind of talk about it as being hand-in-glove. Like you need to be flexible and you need to find a new schedule or a new routine that works for your family, and then put boundaries around it and establish those routines to the extent that you can. So they really go together. And yeah, spending time. Teenagers specifically, they will talk to you whenever it’s convenient for them. Not necessarily when it’s convenient for you. So having those opportunities, sort of keeping that door open for kids to talk to you, is really good. And then another thing just for yourself, for your partner, for your family, and for your kids is to have a sense of humor about it. If you can make fun of yourself in this context, because we all are struggling with this, and just do a little bit of humorous explanation of the day and humor as a coping skill, that’s a really powerful tool, and it’s really effective for folks. So using a sense of humor is really effective for teenagers, particularly. They might not appreciate it in the moment, but it actually is pretty effective. But just don’t give up on this process, because you’ll find the thing that works for you and your family if you keep working at it.

- Great points. So we’ve touched on several strategies for coping with family burnout in our conversation today. But we’ve also got a resource that goes into more detail and offers more tips. For children and families, we have a resource called the Behavioral Health Toolbox for Families. And you can find this resource along with others if you visit coronavirus.wa.gov/wellbeing. That’s coronavirus.wa.gov/wellbeing.

- Yeah, that’s a good point. There’s another resource also that’s available. If you’re tired of being on the computer and you don’t wanna surf around, there’s a Washington Listens line, which is a number that you can call to get support just by having somebody to talk to and get some resources for other sort of professional options or other clinical services that are in your area. And again, that’s the Washington Listens line, and that number is 1–833–681–0211.

- Right. And as always, talk with your healthcare provider if you’re concerned about either your mental and behavioral health or that of your children or your family. That’s all for our show today. Thank you for joining us. And we’ll see you next time for the Department of Health behavioral health podcast on coping with COVID.

Public Health Connection

From the Washington State Department of Health

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