Mother talking to young son It's month nine of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and people are getting tired – not just physically, but mentally. Every day, we deal with uncertainty as we try to juggle family, work, school, our health and our family’s health.

While we try to coordinate all the schedules – for all of our family members – it seems like everything is taking more time, more energy and more thought. Even something as simple as going to the grocery store is now laden with extra things to remember: when is the best time to go, wear a face mask, stay 6 feet apart from others, wash our hands, the list goes on and on.

We’ve done it all for months but now, we're exhausted. The amount of information we must manage every day has overtaxed our brains – leading to mental fatigue. And it's not just us who are experiencing it; it's our children too. 

Signs and symptoms of mental fatigue

Mental fatigue is expressed differently in each person, but common symptoms include:

  • Irritability or being short-tempered
  • Feeling disconnected, easily distracted, forgetful or “in a fog”
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks or making routine decisions
  • Delaying or actively avoiding certain tasks or responsibilities

Mental fatigue can also present physically in the form of headaches, stomach aches, difficulty falling or staying asleep, and overall sluggishness. It can lead to more significant mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. And if not addressed, mental fatigue can lead to a vicious downward cycle.

We can break the destructive cycle with personal protective behaviors – things we can actively do to avoid mental fatigue or get out of a mental slump.

Personal protective behaviors

To reduce mental fatigue for parents – as well as children – planning is key. While there’s certainly a lot we don't know about the future of this pandemic, we can choose to create as much structure and routine as possible within each day.

Create structure

Children thrive with structure (adults do too!). It anchors them, and makes them feel safe. They know what's expected of them and when; it takes away uncertainty. School used to provide this for children, but online and hybrid learning has altered the routine.

To help your child get back on track, consider creating a daily schedule that includes:

  • Regular wake and sleep times to ensure your child gets the recommended amount of sleep depending on their age (9-11 hours for children age 6 to 13; 8-10 hours for teens age 14-17; and 7-9 hours for those 18 and older).
  • Structured time and place for school work, online learning and meetings with teachers – typically between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. (the same as if your child was physically “in” school). When possible, the learning space should be somewhere quiet, other than the child’s bedroom.
  • Physical activity: Encourage your child to run, walk, bike, jump, etc. for 60 minutes a day to get their blood flowing and give their brains a mental break. It does not have to be all at one time; small, 10-minute chunks of activity throughout the day is equally effective to decrease fatigue and boost mood!
  • Go outside: Sunlight is a natural fatigue fighter and helps elevate mood. It’s critically important for positive mental health as the days grow shorter. Seeing greenery and trees (even plants inside) also can have positive effects.
  • Nutritious meals and snacks – and plenty of water. Children need fuel to power their bodies and minds. Consider pre-prepared snacks such as cut-up fruit or veggies, or simple lunches that include a sandwich, fruit, vegetable and milk.
  • Free time for leisure activities like playing, creating or reading. If your child is using a screen all day for school, encourage them to avoid screens for at least half of their free time to give their eyes – and brains – a break.

Brain breaks

Encourage your children (and yourself) to take mini brain breaks every 20-30 minutes from the computer, iPad or other digital learning device. These breaks should be short – and not disrupt learning or work. Simple ways to give brains a break could be listening to music, breathing exercises or a quick walk outside.

Model compassion

It’s hard managing the expectations of others. Your kids feel that too. Be compassionate to them and others you encounter. During meal times or other quiet times with kids, share a story about how you were having a tough day and a co-worker or neighbor was able to make a difference with a kind gesture, word or even text. Encourage your children to share examples – of others’ kindness and their own.

Encourage your children to also be compassionate towards themselves. Set the example that sometimes – even when we are trying our best in any pursuit (work, school, hobbies, chores, etc.), we may come up short on occasion and even make mistakes. That’s OK and it’s also OK to ask for help when needed. By recognizing that we tried our best – even if we don’t succeed or things don’t turn out the way we envisioned – we can use that experience to learn and grow.

If your child comes to you upset about something they didn’t do “right”, ask them what they might say to a friend or close family member with a similar thought or problem. This helps teach them to develop kindness self-talk, self-compassion, as well as healthy problem-solving skills. As a parent, you can try the same strategy: if you are having negative thoughts about something you didn’t do “just right.”

Recognize the positive

When the world is scary or uncertain, it’s easy to get caught in a negative cycle, endlessly repeating the same negative thoughts or behaviors. Parents and kids can quickly go on autopilot and disengage from each other.

Try flipping the script: instead of telling kids what to do (and not do) all the time, start recognizing the positive efforts they are making. Consider offering praise like, “good job wearing your mask” or “thanks for washing your hands.”

It’s also important to go beyond COVID-19 to recognize efforts they are making in their everyday lives. Maybe it’s a school project they worked extra hard on, a personal best in a fitness routine, or an intricate art project. By praising these efforts, we build children’s self-esteem, increase their joy, and give them fuel to tackle more difficult projects they may have avoided due to mental fatigue. 

Time to talk

Create dedicated time each day or every other day to be together – as a family and 1-on-1. Meals are a great time to reconnect with the family, while bedtime rituals, morning runs or a mid-day scheduled break time may allow for private chats.

For family or friends who don’t live with you, arrange weekly calls or video chats. You may not have much to share, but simply seeing each other’s faces and hearing their voices can have a positive effect on mental health.

When to seek help

If your child’s mental fatigue is persistent – or if you, as a parent, are struggling – please seek professional help. Talk to your doctor or your child’s pediatrician. They can help connect you to mental health resources in your community. One positive during this time of COVID? A lot of providers are offering video visits, so you may not even need to leave home to get the support you or your child needs.

Melissa S. Xanthopoulos, PhD, MS, is a psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

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