Families and Youth Face New Dynamics at Home

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I wake up, get ready, eat breakfast, and stay at home to start my day. Does this sound familiar?

About a week ago, I called Kim Allen, an Extension specialist and associate professor with North Carolina State University, to pull together research-based advice about healthy habits families can form as they continue to settle into new routines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Allen teaches in the Youth, Family, and Community Sciences Program at the university and describes why the stress associated with a pandemic is unique.

“Anytime there’s a change, that’s a big stress,” Allen said. “But this stress is different, because it’s so unknown. People don’t know what to expect. It’s a health and safety risk, and we don’t have past experiences to pull from.”

Allen and myself, the local 4-H youth development agent for Caldwell County, want to encourage families to focus on habits they can control, rather than those they cannot.

It is important to remember that each family and individual is unique and will react differently overall to this transition.

Youth are experiencing unique stress at this time. Their normal social structures and day-to-day routines are likely interrupted.

Older youth may exhibit signs of excess stress through personality changes, while younger ones may cry or show outward frustration more often than they otherwise would. Parents can observe behaviors and personality to try and better understand their children’s emotions and mental health.

Allen discussed how all youth will not react to academics the same way during this time. Some who feel overwhelmed by academic pressure may feel relief, while other youth may be in dismay from having to miss school.

“I have some unpublished research from kids right now, and most students are feeling stressed about things like isolation,” Allen said. “They miss their peers. They miss their friends. Some are stressed about what this means for their future.”

“Also, there is a stress about family relationships, especially for teenagers, being home all day every day, without those peer relationships, it can be challenging for some teens,” she continued.

As promised, Allen and I discussed some habits all families and individuals can focus on to help themselves balance a variety of stressors. A body of research says eating healthy, regular exercise and sleep are standbys and still relevant for improving a person’s overall health and his or her resilience to stress.

Allen emphasizes the importance of families having fun together as a way to improve relationships and ease conflicts.

“No matter how busy we are, if we take time to have fun with each other, it’s going to buffer some of those negative effects,” she said.

Another suggestion is to set a basic schedule. Especially with the chaos society is currently experiencing, people of all ages may feel a sense of calm and order when a schedule or routine is in place.

Allen, a parent herself, said as a message to other parents, “Rather than this being the time to be authoritarian and my way or the highway, this is our chance to do more reassuring and loving and understanding, which is really hard when we’re already stressed and irritated ourselves.”

If someone is feeling anxiety related to his or her situation, deep breathing and mindfulness exercises can assist with self-awareness.

The “4-7-8” breathing technique is a straightforward one to try. A person begins by breathing in for four counts, holds for seven counts and slowly exhales for eight counts to signal to his or her body to calm down.

To encourage families to have fun together and develop healthy habits, Caldwell County 4-H will host summer programming again this year. It will look a little different than it has in years past to lower health and safety risks, but activities will still be educational and a good time for those who choose to participate.

kids under a tarp

From left to right, Thang Pham, Cooper Cutshall and Lucas Sherrill sit under the temporary shelter they practiced making during last year’s 4-H Summer Exploring. Many youth miss social aspects from the routine they had prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community members can monitor caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu/categories/4-h-youth-development/ for updates about these local opportunities.

Caldwell County 4-H is a member agency of United Way, and it enthusiastically supports its partnerships.