Researcher Suniya Luthar explains why protecting kids’ mental health during the pandemic starts with caring for parents and teachers.

The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every facet of our lives, but research is only just beginning to understand its impact on children, families, and educators. Throughout two long years and counting, parents and teachers have continued to nurture children’s resilience, even as they’ve faced continued pressures and challenges themselves.

Suniya Luthar is a professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College whose research has explored vulnerability and resilience in children and families. She and her colleagues recently published a study exploring the COVID-19 pandemic and resilience in over 14,000 students at 49 schools across the United States, suggesting that actions by parents and teachers matter a lot. The team found that the quality of children’s relationships with their parents had especially powerful links with mental health. Similarly, when asked what was going well at school, students most often mentioned support from teachers. They also appreciated when the school listened to their concerns about school, and when teachers offered flexibility in terms of deadlines, assignments, class schedules, and breaks.

How can we continue supporting students? Luther wholeheartedly believes the answer is to “care for the caregivers.” In the interview below, Luthar explains why helping children must start with focusing on parent and teacher well-being.

Maryam Abdullah: Students in your study had the opportunity to share what they were most worried about early on in the pandemic. What types of concerns did they have?

Suniya Luthar: Of the top three categories of worries that they mentioned, one was about workload: “How am I going to get my schoolwork done when I’m in such a rough place myself?” Another one was about my personal future. Many of these students were juniors and seniors in high school: “What’s going to become of us once we graduate?” And the third largest was well-being of the family. This was generally about their parents—“my mother’s job” or “my dad’s health”—and some were heart-wrenching: “My mom’s a nurse and every day when she goes to work I’m terrified she may not come back.”

MA: One of your important findings is that children who felt greater support from their parents tended to have less depression and anxiety. What are some practical tips for parents to help their middle and high schoolers feel supported?

SL: My practical advice is: You must feel supported yourself. That is my one-sentence response.

The variable in question had two parts. The first one was, in essence, “My parents help me manage my feelings.” The second question was the more powerful one in terms of effects, which is, “When my parents are around, it stresses me out.” Now, what was that stress about? It could have been around schoolwork, as in “They’re bugging me about my grades and my schedule.” But oftentimes, it was more like “I’m worried about my parents and I fear for them.” That was not just about parents’ physical health, it was about their mental health, too.

These findings on the parents are consistent with what we know from resilience research, and not just during the COVID pandemic. It is clearly stated in the National Academies of Sciences 2019 report Vibrant and Healthy Kids: Resilience among kids rests on the well-being of their primary caregivers, which, in turn, rests on the support that the caregivers themselves receive.

So if a parent asks, “How can I best help my child?,” the answer is, first, you need to be well yourself—whether your child is 12, 18, or three. By “being well,” I don’t mean put on your oxygen mask, which is oftentimes what I hear. I mean make sure that you have someone to put on your mask for you—because we, as adults, too, can be gasping. And we have gasped—either with our own pain or that of those we love—I don’t know anyone that hasn’t.

MA: You also found that students who felt their voices were more often heard at school tended to have better emotional health. What are some important ways educators can make sure their students feel heard?

SL: Exactly the same thing applies here again. The open-ended responses from the students were so poignant and moving: “Oh, I love that Miss Smith reaches out to me every day to make sure that I’m OK.” During the first three months of the pandemic, the outreach by the faculty and staff to the kids was very powerful—the kids really appreciated them.

Now, let’s look at the educators’ mental health—at emotional burnout at work. At the start of COVID, 20% of faculty and staff reported serious levels of emotional exhaustion (and this is burnout at work, not general stress). The most recent assessments are at 70%. So of all the adults in a given school, almost three out of four are now in the “red zone” of feeling emotionally drained at work.

This is not sustainable. You cannot give to a child when you’re so exhausted and depleted yourself. Going back to the National Academies’ report, this issue of making sure that the caregivers are tended and supported applies as much to these teachers, counselors, administrators, advisors, and coaches at school. Many of these folk give much of themselves to the children, as do their parents and grandparents at home.

MA: Can you talk more about this urgent need to elevate the well-being of the adults in children’s lives—parents, caregivers, and educators—in order to nurture children’s resilience? What can we do about it?

SL: The urgency of the need is that figure I put forward: 70% burnout among educators. I would venture to say it’s not that different among parents, especially parents who were cloistered with their kids for long periods of time. Stress and distress levels been especially high among adults with kids at home, and there’s more conflict in families. So with all parents as well as educators, our task is to very deliberately prioritize giving them that kind of support on a regular basis.

Whichever intervention you might use, the focus needs to be squarely on that which will replenish these caregivers. Give them the same love and support that you’d want them to continue to give to their children. At this point, we are all somewhat drained— somewhere between OK and unraveling. And if I’m unraveling, I cannot give you what you need. So our biggest job as scientists, as policymakers, as people in society, is to really focus on supporting these very important caregivers. The well-being of an entire generation is what is at stake here. We have got to get this right.

“Our biggest job . . . is to really focus on supporting these very important caregivers. The well-being of an entire generation is what is at stake here.”
―Suniya Luthar, Ph.D.

MA: In your report, you shared, “To urge a group of emotionally and physically exhausted caregivers that they must prioritize good self-care is unrealistic at best and, at worst, perceived as offensive.” Can you explain this? What should happen instead?

SL: I have heard the term “toxic positivity” several times over the course of these past two years. For example, a couple of months after school closures, a teacher was in tears because she was told, “We’re going to decorate the staff room now with upbeat things and that’s going to cheer us all up.” At best, this sort of thing is ineffective. At worst, it upsets people—like “Really? You’re going to ask me to do that with all we’re going through?”

We know from science that activities like meditation and mindfulness can in fact be very good, but they do not help you get out of that deep sense of despair and grief that many of us have experienced. Meditation and coping skills are very good when we’re out of that really dark and completely exhausted place. But when we approach unraveling, we have to go back to resilience research: What we most need are authentic connections with others. We have to make sure that all these adults feel cared about, because they have to care for the kids. We have to make sure all these adults are as far as possible out of the red zone on burnout.

This is a task that’s essential for the fabric of our society. Our relationships have been torn asunder with all the events of the last two years, and our job now is to mindfully build them back up. In our Authentic Connections Groups program, someone coined the phrase “a blanket of love.” We’ve got to repair this. We’ve got to make sure that the safety nets are available for all of us, so that if you get out of bed and it’s a day where you’re feeling despair, hopelessness, or grief, you can call me or text me, and I’ll say, “Here for you. I love you.” That’s what we must focus on: the single, most important thing is to have those supportive networks. That “oxygen mask” has to be ready ahead of time, and our job is to build up those networks in a science-based way.

MA: What is one of the most important takeaways for parents and educators that you want to underscore from this study?

SL: I think the most important message to convey is essentially that child development has been turned on its head. In the past, we’ve been used to telling parents, “Here’s what you should do. Here is what you shouldn’t do. This is right. This is wrong.” And it stopped there. Now, the consensus in science is to prioritize this upstream approach of taking care of whoever is the primary caregiver. In our Authentic Connections Groups with moms, we don’t even really speak about the child. We do talk about some parenting behaviors, but really that’s not the emphasis. In the past I might have come to you and said, “OK, so how’s your child doing on X, Y, and Z dimensions?” and “Here’s what you should be doing.” Right now, I’d come to you and say, “How are you? How are you feeling?”

This premise is very well borne out in science—that if you are doing well as the mother, then all kinds of good things come from that. If you are miserable, there’s potential for all kinds of trouble. Think of all the literature on maternal and paternal depression. So that is the most important thing parents need to absorb and accept: They’re not doing this because they’re being selfish; they are, to the contrary, doing this in the interest of their children’s well-being. By “this” I mean ensuring that they get taken care of themselves.

Parents can have a hard time accepting this: “Oh, my goodness, how could I be so indulgent? How can I take one hour a week for three months to do this?” We’ll show you the data that having your own support network will help not just you, psychologically, but, perhaps most importantly for you as a parent, it’ll help your children and how they are able to function amidst the continuing uncertainties of these times.

This article was originally published in Greater Good Magazine. Content may be edited for style and length.

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