Tag Archives: Coronavirus

Facing a winter of discontent

By Laurie Meyers November 19, 2020

In 2005, a Welsh psychologist announced that he had created a formula combining factors such as weather, holiday debt, the amount of time elapsed since Christmas and the likelihood of already-abandoned New Year’s resolutions to determine the most depressing day of the year: the third Monday in January, aka “Blue Monday.”

To many people — particularly those in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere — this sounded logical. After all, January can seem a little grim, with its feeble sunlight and frequently unpleasant weather, the end of holiday festivities, and endless commercials for diets and exercise equipment. As we rise in the dark to trudge to work and are again greeted by darkness on the commute home, spring does seem particularly far away.

But the vaunted “discovery” was, in truth, a public relations stunt masquerading as science. Blue Monday and its phony formula were commissioned by a savvy travel agency in the United Kingdom as a faux-scientific excuse for people to stop sitting in their cubicles complaining about dreary weather and book a vacation to someplace warm and sunny.

In 2020, winter arrives toward the end of a calamitous year and with additional challenges beyond the usual seasonal funk. Americans are already reeling from a spring and summer spent isolating and physically distancing to avoid the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It was difficult or unsafe to participate in many of the sun-soaked rituals that normally help buoy people against the coming of winter.

As fall arrived, more than 200,000 Americans were dead, and the country began experiencing another nationwide surge of COVID-19 cases. Many people have lost loved ones. Isolation, lack of contact with friends and family members, and the difficulties of home schooling and working from home have taken a significant toll.

Winter promises more of the same, and what spring might hold is entirely uncertain at this time. The holiday season — which can be difficult for many people under the best of circumstances — is especially fraught this year. Public health experts have discouraged indoor gatherings that include people who do not live in the same household. This directive has left many wondering how — or if — they can celebrate with loved ones.

Unhappy holidays?

In a year when virtually nothing has been normal — “new” or otherwise — the longing for traditional celebrations may be especially intense. But it’s essential for clients to realize that the holidays, like the preceding seasons, will most likely be atypical, says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Stacy Blassingame.

“Most of us are feeling an increasing loss of connectedness to relationships and traditions we’ve come to rely on to give life meaning and purpose,” she says. But clients need not give up on the idea of sharing the holidays with loved ones; their celebrations simply need reimagining, says Blassingame, a member of the American Counseling Association whose specialties include anxiety and family issues.

She helps clients explore what aspects of the holidays have traditionally felt the most meaningful to them — such as baking and cooking, gift-giving, taking pictures or sharing stories — and then identify different ways of incorporating those things into celebrations. Blassingame and her clients have looked into ways of using the entire holiday season, rather than just a day or two, to connect with friends and family via Zoom or even through small, physically distanced gatherings.

One advantage of the increasing incorporation of technology into celebrations is that clients are more likely to include family members who aren’t usually able to travel to in-person gatherings, she points out. “In fact, this summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a Zoom bridal shower that connected me with family members I haven’t seen in years,” says Blassingame, a counselor and managing director at the St. Louis counseling practice Change Inc.

Lauren Ostrowski, an LPC in a Pottstown, Pennsylvania, group practice whose counseling specialties include depression, anxiety and relationship issues, suggests that clients get creative with technology. Instead of gathering in person as they normally would, family members could mail or drop off their gifts and then open them at the same time on Zoom, or use the platform for cooking and eating a holiday meal together, suggests Ostrowski, a member of ACA.

Not everyone views the holidays as a time when all is merry and bright, however. “The holidays are complicated for many people in the best of times,” notes John Ballew, an LPC practicing in the Atlanta area. “For many people, not being able to spend time with those we love has been painful. For others with complicated family relationships, the idea of not being able to visit during the holidays may be more distressing than the actual loss of time with family.” Some clients might tell themselves how awful it is that the pandemic is keeping them from spending the holidays with extended family, when the reality is that the prior year at Thanksgiving, they ate and drank too much and got into a big fight with their relatives, he says.

“Counselors never want to minimize their clients’ experiences,” cautions Ballew, an ACA member. “But helping clients explore what’s really important to them, what’s meaningful, may help alternatives emerge.”

Perhaps a holiday away from family conflict will provide a much-needed break, he says. And if clients end up spending the holidays mostly alone — by choice or not — can they find a way to make the season meaningful in a new way?

“Holiday time is often an overwhelming whirl of shopping, consuming and busyness,” observes Ballew, whose counseling specialties include depression, anxiety, relationship problems and couples counseling. “Yet this time of year also lends itself to reflection and thinking about what is important. Counselors have an opportunity to help clients understand the potential for something good beneath the layers of loss.”

Laura Brackett, an LPC and the director of community engagement at Change Inc. in St. Louis, notes that her clients have been bringing up the holiday season and how different it will be for months in advance. She says that before discussing how to mark the holidays, it was essential for her to understand whether the holidays had historically been a time of celebration or pain for each of her clients and if something — besides the pandemic — was contributing to making this year different from past holiday seasons.

For example, marking the holidays during a year in which a parent died and the pandemic prevented a client’s family members from gathering to mourn is drastically different from welcoming this year’s social distancing as a break from having to travel to four separate places in a 24-hour period, Brackett emphasizes.

“In general, I ask my clients what they need to grieve, to celebrate, to remember and to let go of,” she says. “We also discuss what power they have in deciding what this holiday season will be to them, including if they want to acknowledge it at all.”

Some clients this holiday season may have mixed emotions, including guilt and grief, Ostrowski says. “There are a lot more people who have an empty chair at the table this holiday,” she observes.

Ostrowski helps clients find ways of honoring their absent loved ones, such as decorating a certain way or even just sharing memories with a friend or family member. She also reminds clients that it is OK to experience a moment or time of joy amidst the grief as a kind of gift to themselves. Ostrowski asks clients to notice those feelings — how one part of them may be sad, while another part is enjoying the moment. “You can have two different emotions at once,” she confirms to clients.

A new kind of family conflict

Even among the most even-tempered families, it wouldn’t be the holidays without at least a little conflict. This year, some of the dissent is likely to be about public health experts’ advice against gathering — at least indoors — for the holidays. Family members may have divergent views of what a “safe” gathering looks like.

“Anxiety about these situations is very real,” Ballew says. “It has been called insinuation anxiety: a worry that not agreeing with someone’s choices implies criticism of how they are managing pandemic life. It is important to affirm clients who are rigorous in social distancing if that’s what they’ve decided is the best course of action.”

Ballew also probes for signs that the conflict is an indication of problematic family dynamics. “It isn’t unusual for clients to report that they feel disrespected in long-standing patterns with parents and other family members,” he explains. “Social distancing decisions may be merely the most recent manifestation of this. Coaching them through this involves several steps: identifying the problem and the desired outcome, clarifying their boundaries and choices, then using behavioral rehearsal or role-play to gain some skill in navigating these challenging interactions.

“Many people want family members to validate their choices as a way to ease their own anxiety in the face of uncertainty. I find it helpful to point out how this gives the client’s power away, leaving them at the mercy of people who may have values significantly different from their own.”

Blassingame says many of her clients feel as if the pandemic has ruined large parts of their lives. She says that allowing clients to give voice to all their disappointments often helps them realize that in some ways, they agree with those who are against a socially distanced celebration because they believe it won’t feel like the holidays without gathering in person. Recognizing this allows clients to empathize with family members and approach the conflict feeling more empathetic and centered.

Blassingame adds that some clients also find it helpful to rehearse how to respond to family members who are hurt or disappointed. They can use statements such as, “I’m really sad that it’s not safe for us to get together too. I can’t wait until we’re all together again.”

However, some clients face weightier decisions, she says. “I have also had clients who had to seriously weigh the pros and cons of spending a holiday without aging loved ones, recognizing that this may be their last holiday together,” Blassingame explains. “One client of mine had an open and difficult conversation with her aging parents weighing the pros and cons of not seeing them this year.”

In the end, the client and her parents decided that they would always regret it if they ended up missing a potential last chance to celebrate together. They have decided to spend the holiday together while taking all possible safety precautions, Blassingame says.

Julie Cavese, an LPC with a private practice in Portland, Oregon, proposes some middle ground. She suggests investing in a space heater, decorating the garage or carport and having a few family members over for a physically distanced gathering. Or, clients could suggest that family members take a holiday walk/hike or gather outside with some hot chocolate.

For clients who don’t feel comfortable getting together with extended family, even outside, “I think just being honest goes a long way,” Cavese says. Clients could tell family members that of course they’d love to see them, but they just don’t feel safe doing so. Then they can add that they’re really looking forward to seeing them next year.

Family members may not be happy with that decision, but Cavese asks clients what their priority is. Is it their personal safety and public health? “Or is it keeping the peace at all costs, even if that means Grandma gets sick?” Cavese says.

Welcoming winter

Blue Monday may be a myth, but there’s a reason that it still pops up in news articles every January. Even people who do not experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) sometimes feel more sluggish and unmotivated during the winter. Winter weather can make it difficult or undesirable to go out. Many areas of the country routinely deal with heavy snow, biting winds, sleet and freezing rain or, at minimum, uncomfortably cold rain. Even on sunny days, the light frequently feels a bit anemic.

“I’m finding that as the days get shorter, those whose moods are affected by the changing seasons have started struggling with low mood much earlier than in years past,” Blassingame says. “I can’t help but attribute this to the fact that most of us have spent a lot of time alone and in our homes already this year.”

As Ballew notes, this winter we are facing all the usual challenges without the social stimulation of parties and little pleasures such as concerts and plays. 

Blassingame has been urging all of her clients — with or without SAD — to prepare for the increased isolation of the upcoming winter. Take advantage of the time that can be spent outdoors right now, she advises.

“In many areas of the country, individuals can bundle up and go for walks or even consider fall camping or hiking to take advantage of the outdoors during even the coldest months of the year,” Blassingame says. “I [also] encourage clients to think about the things they love to do during the slower, ‘hibernating’ months of the year and begin preparing for them now by planning winter projects and activities such as home projects, crafts [and] cooking new recipes. Some are stocking up on books to read and movies to watch in anticipation of having more free time. Having something to look forward to can be a beneficial tool to cope with longer periods of isolation.”

“This year, self-care is going to be particularly important,” Ballew adds. “Don’t overindulge in self-soothing by overeating and over-drinking, though don’t completely avoid those pleasures either. Exercise is key. Look for something new to add to routines, or change things up if you get bored.”

Blassingame agrees. “During these long months, I’m urging clients to be mindful of their intake of alcohol … as many are more prone to drinking to cope with loneliness and feelings of sadness. Clients also often need help identifying friends they can ask for support to set them up for greater success as the winter drags on.”

One of Blassingame’s clients is assembling a group of friends to do regular check-ins with each other and to drop off or mail random small gifts, such as a candy bar or a package of tea or coffee, so that no one feels forgotten.

Ballew is encouraging clients to renew contacts with old friends and to stay in closer touch with existing friends. He also urges clients to explore online offerings such as meetups, 12-step groups (if appropriate) and other options.

“With single clients, I often talk about how to use online dating apps effectively during a time when dating looks very different from the way it looked last year,” Ballew says.

“It is also helpful for people to cultivate an appreciation for their relationship with themselves,” he continues. “Encouraging new hobbies or reinvesting in old ones may help them reexperience time alone as something to be valued, not just endured.”

Although clients need to find ways to make winter more enjoyable, they shouldn’t feel an obligation to be “productive,” say Blassingame and Ballew.

“For example, I have one client who, at the beginning of the pandemic, was feeling a sense of guilt over not baking bread, learning a new hobby or expanding her mind through reading a new book,” Blassingame says. “We spent time talking about the messages she received growing up about productivity and laziness.”

The client’s father had taught her that it wasn’t OK to spend time relaxing and recharging, Blassingame notes. “When we explored how she wanted to spend her time of isolation, she shared that she has a list of her top 50 favorite movies that she has always wanted to get around to rewatching,” Blassingame says.

The client realized that she didn’t even want to learn how to bake bread. “During her time at home, she watched quite a few of her favorite movies and is saving the rest for this winter when she anticipates spending more time indoors,” Blassingame says. “Sometimes, we just have to help clients give themselves permission to spend their time the way they truly want to spend it.”

It’s great that some people are spending this time learning or doing new things, Ballew says. “But for most of the people I work with, the pandemic and the changes in work and relationships it has wrought have used up much of their bandwidth,” he adds. “Telling a parent balancing working from home with sketchy child care that they should also be learning to speak another language or learn to play the flute is cruel. Yet that’s what some of my clients have been expecting of themselves.

“Counselors are in a great position to help clients recognize the demands that life is placing on them. In my experience, clients’ No. 1 need is to learn greater self-compassion.”

Everyone has their own optimal level of stimulation, Ballew explains. Some people are stretched thin by the demands of the pandemic, while others are understimulated and bored.

“Counselors need to help clients understand their own situation and how to care for themselves,” he says. “Does a client need more structure to calm some of the chaos around them? Or do they need to add a challenge that they will find meaningful?”

“One recommendation I make for most clients is to take time every day to walk with a partner or by themselves,” Ballew continues. “If they are walking by themselves, listening to audiobooks or podcasts can satisfy the urge to learn or do something meaningful. At the same time, the exercise helps them better regulate their mood.”

It’s OK to take winter as a time for self-nurturance, Cavese tells clients. She urges them to embrace its coziness and let themselves enjoy the wrapping up, hot drinks and movie nights.

Holding on to hope

During the long nights of winter to come, it might be easy to feel as if the coronavirus era is endless.

“I don’t think it’s evident to most [people] that what they’re experiencing during the pandemic is a form of grief,” Blassingame says, adding that just naming and normalizing the grief can be therapeutic. Counselors and clients should also explore what has been lost, both personally and as a society, she emphasizes.

“When some clients are struggling, I’ve found it helpful to just say, ‘This really sucks, doesn’t it?’” Ballew says. “Just acknowledging what is right in front of us can be freeing. Give clients space to talk about frustrations, fears and losses, even if they said pretty much the same thing last week. Many clients are struggling to support others, and the counseling session may be their only opportunity to acknowledge the depth of their loss. The goal is to help clients move to a place of acceptance if they can.”

“It’s crucial for helpers to acknowledge how these times have been tough for them as well,” Blassingame urges. “As paradoxical as it may seem, we can often be more helpful when we resist the urge to fix or remove the grief and pain that clients are experiencing. Be a fellow struggling human being who is walking beside them in the same struggles.”

Brackett also believes that counselors may want to consider self-disclosure. “As counselors, we often appear to our clients like we have it all figured out, even if we don’t intend to present that way,” she says. “Would normalizing an experience with your own life help? For example, a client recently discussed worry about the dropping temperature and how it will limit their ability to see people. While we considered ways to keep connection when outdoor activities aren’t as easy, the part of the conversation that steadied them the most was my own disclosure about that concern: ‘I don’t know how to maintain connection during a global pandemic during holiday season in the Midwest in the winter either, and it’s intimidating! Maybe we can figure it out together.’

“It’s that last word — together — that reminds them that even if they don’t know what to do, someone is with them.”

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counseling Connoisseur: Counselors, pets and COVID-19

By Cheryl Fisher November 17, 2020

Isolation is the worst possible counselor.”

– Miguel de Unamuno

 

COVID-19 has provided a unique opportunity to return previously external occupations such as education and employment to the home. This is often doubly true for counselor educators and students as both classroom and clinical practice are being offered via virtual formats.

This transition has not been without challenges. Whether it is a wardrobe failure caught on camera or a feline sprawled across the keyboard, the virtual classroom and telehealth have blurred the boundaries of our privacy. Classmates, faculty and clients now have access to aspects of our home life. Virtual backgrounds may provide the appearance of an office-like environment veiling the reality of the basement, spare bedroom or even closet. However, household sounds are not as easily silenced when unmuted and meetings now often include the bark or purr of the canine or feline household member.

Additionally, the virtual world is a reminder of the distance required during this pandemic. Water cooler talk and happy hours are now hosted through chats, emails and Zoom meetings. Physical connection is relegated to those deemed safe enough to be in one’s “bubble” such as immediate family members and close friends.

Included in that bubble are the family pets. According to researcher and professor of anthropology, Brian Fagan in his book titled The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History, “More than fifteen thousand years ago, relationships of familiarity and respect led to cooperation and companionship between people and wolves, the ancestors of the first animals to become members of human families.”

The human-animal connection has led to an interdependent relationship that has provided physical and emotional satisfaction and support for both human and other-than-human companions.

Pets motivate movement

Sitting for hours in front of the computer is contributing to Zoom fatigue and an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle. Animals motivate movement, encourage play and promote venturing outdoors for walks. For example, my own standard poodle will indicate when it is time for my work break by staring me down. Should I not respond, she resorts to a gentle (but firm and repeated) tap on my shoulder. If I am still remiss in acquiescing her request to go outside, she will break into a barrage of vocalizations that begin as soft whines of malcontent and escalate to barks of infuriation.

One of my counselors-in training described how her pets have navigated the pandemic and motivated family walks and mutual support.

“We have two dogs, a whoodle (wheaton terrier/poodle cross) named Buffy and Coyote, a rescue, who is a terrier mix of some kind.  Buffy looks like a teddy bear and when she isn’t cuddled up with my two boys she is hunting rodents and rattlesnakes. She really lives up to the name Buffy. What can I say about Coyote? Well, he’s a chicken. He’s afraid of his own shadow. The best thing that ever happened to him is this darn pandemic because we are all at home where he can keep tabs on us.  The pandemic has forced us to spend way more time together as a family (for better or worse!) and that includes our dogs. The one thing that we started to do as a family is taking the dogs for a walk. I’m not sure why it took a pandemic to make this a family event but I’m not going to complain, and I know the dogs won’t either.”

Pets decrease symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression

The stressors that have accompanied the pandemic are numerous. Animals are also sensitive to the stress experienced by their human and strive to mediate the challenges. According to Stephanie Borns-Weil, the head of behavior service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, animals are also adjusting to everyone being home and trying to navigate the increase in activity. However, routine engagement with pets appears to decrease the stress hormone cortisol and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression for both human and animal. For example, one client shared this story about her German shepherd:

“After the lockdown, I was feeling sad and isolated. He [the dog] started to see I was in bed a lot. After some time, he would pull me out of bed. Then moved me away from the couch and showing me he was getting fat as well as myself. So, the next morning, he pulled me out of bed and away from the couch. I changed my clothes and started walking. We just walked for 40 minutes, just to be outside and get some fresh air. It started for me to change my habits, diet, routine and even conversation.”

Pets provide companionship without baggage

Pets help decrease loneliness by giving and seeking companionship without the complex emotional conditions of many human relationships. This is not simply an emotional connection but a neurological bond set by increased levels of the neurotransmitter oxytocin in both humans and animals. During the pandemic, people’s increased need for companionship has resulted in an increase in the fostering and adoption of rescue animals. People are searching for that uncomplicated and fulfilling connection. For one client family the pit bull mix they rescued during the lockdown has been a calming presence and a constant companion for their children.

“She [the dog] has given the children unconditional love, a calming presence, and provided us purpose during these eight months of being at home. During the children’s ‘recess’ time from distance learning, we take her on walks around the park and play ball. She forces us to get outside to play and laugh! She keeps us in the present moment. She snuggles them, kisses them and is truly a light during darker days! We are so grateful for her companionship during these challenging times.”

For many people, pets aren’t just companions. As this story shared by a colleague demonstrates, the connection and concern we feel marks them as part of our families.

“My dog has also been my pandemic buddy, sitting next to me through Zoom calls and virtual therapy sessions. We have gone on daily walks and snuggle times on the couch as I did my notes. Sadly, during the last four months he experienced a spinal injury that got progressively worse. We’ve been working with our vet and he’s getting stronger and I can’t imagine what the long days working from home would be like without him.”

Domesticated animals and humans have a long history together. From predator and prey to companions, the relationship is both complex and primal. The pandemic has also invited a greater awareness of our coexistence with many species. Coyotes were sighted in San Francisco, bears in the streets of Los Angeles, and a peacock even adopted a London primary school and the surrounding neighborhood. Many attributed the pandemic-induced reduction in human activity to these increased sightings of wild animals in urban settings.

The human-animal connection is an interdependent relationship and one that can be especially healing during difficult times. When the time comes (and it will) when we begin to return to our classrooms and office spaces, it is important to remember that our pets will also need time to adjust to the changes. While some may be relieved by the quiet, others may be saddened to lose their daytime buddies.

However, never fear. Our pets are faithful and will let us know that deep down they will always forgive us and are ever ready for a luxurious rub behind the ears or a brisk walk in the park. Perhaps it is just as Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, one of the first Westerners to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert and chronicle their relationships with animals and the author of The Hidden Life of Dogs, noted, “No person is too old or ugly or poor or disabled to win the love of a pet — they love us uncritically and without reserve.”

 

This is dedicated to my co-therapist, 12-year-old golden doodle, Max who died suddenly in July. Your friendship and guidance is sorely missed.

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

How (not) to isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Bethany Bray October 28, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has steeply curtailed social gatherings, travel plans and in-person events for most of 2020. And that has raised something of a perplexing scenario for counselors and other mental health professionals: When almost everyone is isolating themselves physically to some extent — and will be for the foreseeable future — how do you identify that a client might be isolating in the “classic” sense, which is typically viewed as a red flag that someone might be struggling with their mental health?

Nixon, like many clinicians, has needed to shift his thinking about what isolation looks like in clients during the COVID-19 pandemic, and respond differently as well. When screening for isolation and depression, one of the primary indicators counselors look for is a loss of interest or lack of participation in activities that a person once enjoyed. But throughout the pandemic, many clients haven’t felt safe playing group sports or participating in activities or hobbies that typically involve others. Plus, many of these activities haven’t been available anyway because of widespread cancellations and closures.“As I’ve gone through the last six months, my view on what isolation looks like has definitely changed,” says Sean Nixon, a licensed clinical professional counselor outside of Boise, Idaho, who works with children and families. “I used to think of isolating as a person who is off by themselves, not engaged or interacting with anyone. But now, [for] a lot of people who I’ve worked with in my practice, there’s this forced, constant isolating. Even now that they can leave the house, to walk up and give someone a hug, as you might have done six months ago, is not the norm.”

“Now, when asking those screener questions, I have to consider the person’s situation. … We have to screen more — are we seeing an increase in depression, an increase in stress because of the pandemic, or are we dealing with both here?” says Nixon, a member of the American Counseling Association who works as a pediatric mental health therapist in an outpatient setting for a medical system.

Nixon says he has also broadened his scope of thinking about isolation to look for it both in individuals and entire family units. Not only are families feeling isolated from friends and outside activities that they used to enjoy, but they are sometimes isolating themselves from each other within the household during this stressful time, he explains. This can range from physical withdrawal, such as shutting themselves in their bedrooms, to spending too much time using digital devices as an avoidance mechanism.

Signs of isolation in families with children often become apparent when youngsters express a constant desire to play with or do one-on-one activities with a caregiver, he says. At the same time, many parents are expressing that they feel overwhelmed or that they feel guilty about needing to spend time sequestered away from their children as they work from home.

“From parents, I’m hearing [in sessions] how they just need a break and are feeling like their children always want their attention. They’re trying to find balance while they still have work commitments and are trying to explain to younger children that ‘Mom and Dad aren’t just home; we’re home and we have work to do.’ It’s definitely a strain and struggle on parents,” says Nixon, who is also a licensed marriage and family counselor.

“A lot of times, the previous concept of isolation was as an individual problem,” he continues. “But [as the pandemic worsened] I was working with family units who were limited on where they could go, and I started to see stress and overwhelming emotions that came with being around each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As that continued to build, for some families, it helped them grow closer together. For others, it was increasing their dysfunction and tearing them apart faster.”

What to listen for

Ryan Holliman is a licensed professional counselor and supervisor (LPC-S) and a counselor educator who counsels adult clients one day per week at a free medical clinic in Dallas. Forging a strong bond with clients and getting to know what is and isn’t normal behavior for them is always important for clinicians, but that’s even more the case now, he says.

Many of Holliman’s clients have personality disorders and struggle with maintaining long-term relationships. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Holliman has found he needs to assess clients more regularly and rigorously for isolation, including asking focused questions about their relationships and the resources they rely on when experiencing stress.

“Isolation is now a lot more nuanced,” says Holliman, an ACA member and an assistant professor at Tarleton State University. “You have to listen for different things [such as] if they are being proactive about developing social networks and accessing those networks, or are they letting COVID-19 dictate the terms of their social life? … Most relationships right now are facing a lot of stress [because] we’re placing all the emotional weight on a few places.”

Holliman has increased his check-ins with clients about their relationships with friends and family, asking them to rate these relationships on a scale. He asks, “How happy are you with the relationship, and how happy do you think the other person is with the relationship?” The aim of this exercise is to ensure that clients are continuing to grow, not stall, in their relationships during this trying time, he explains.

“With COVID-19, it’s easy [for clients] to say ‘good enough is good enough’ and lapse into complacency. But I tell clients, ‘That’s not what I want for you.’ It would be easy to say, ‘It’s a crisis, it’s a pandemic, and this is as good as it’s going to get.’ But as counselors, we are called to be dealers in hope,” he emphasizes. “Help [clients] move toward hope and [see] that there can be more.”

Among the college student population, many individuals are exhibiting typical signs such as having trouble sleeping or feeling overwhelmed that suggest they are struggling and feeling isolated — but exponentially so, says Elizabeth Bambacus, a student engagement and summer studies administrator at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). She runs a peer mentoring program for first-generation college students, a population that is already susceptible to feeling out of place and experiencing self-doubt. Her program pairs freshmen first-generation students with upperclassmen first-generation students for support, guidance and friendship.

Bambacus says many of her students have talked about feeling like their academic programs are much harder this fall. One student recently remarked that she wouldn’t be upset if she threw her laptop across the room and it broke. In another conversation, a male student told Bambacus that he hadn’t been outdoors in four days.

“We [would] generally have students who pop in [to our office] and say hi and random drop-ins wanting to chat about everything from ‘I’m worried about an assignment’ to ‘I just had a big argument with my dad, and it’s impacting my ability to focus.’ But there isn’t much opportunity for that now,” say Bambacus, who has a doctorate in counselor education and supervision. “It’s just not the same because everyone is avoiding everyone.”

VCU’s campus in Richmond is open, but a majority of the school’s classes are being held online. While some students are staying on campus, many have chosen to live at home or by themselves in apartments off campus, Bambacus says. Most of the ways that students would typically be personally interacting with others, from staying after class to ask a professor a question to getting involved in student clubs and group events, are off the table this fall.

Another big indicator of isolation among students is avoidance behaviors, such as not engaging with peer mentors and neglecting assignments or otherwise letting their academics slide. Bambacus observes that many students, including those who have a prior history of being responsive, aren’t responding to her emails this semester. “College students in general aren’t great at this,” she says, “but I have noticed an uptick.”

Many students this year are also experiencing a resurgence of anxiety and depression that were previously under control, Bambacus adds. Students with those diagnoses are always at risk for isolating behaviors, but this year, that is acutely so. As they begin to feel disconnected, their anxiety spikes and they get behind in their classwork, leading to a vicious cycle, she notes.

“I see students get overwhelmed, get behind in classes, and that’s triggering too — that feeling of doom. ‘Oh no. It’s happening again.’ With all of the anxiety and depressive thoughts, how can anyone do their homework or study for a test? That requires so much mental energy to do that, and the shame in not being able to do that — beating yourself up for not being able to focus for more than 30 seconds at a time — it’s just a cycle.”

Adapt as needed

In addition to checking in more frequently with clients and listening for the different (and potentially new) ways that isolation is affecting them, Holliman is focusing on self-talk. These past few months have left many clients prone to a downward spiral of self-critical thinking, he says.

Many of his clients talk about being “stuck in their own thoughts,” he notes. “When you’re at home all the time, that’s a real struggle to fight that.”

That is all the more acute for clients dealing with reduced income or job loss during the recent economic shifts caused by COVID-19, he adds. Feeling trapped financially can lead to increased feelings of isolation, he says, particularly when added to the social isolation and self-doubt that have gone hand in hand with the pandemic.

“Clients may just need to hear, ‘This is not a normal situation, and you’re handling it,’” Holliman says. “Drawing from compassion-focused therapy, I ask [clients], ‘How are you talking to yourself? What’s the tone of voice you use? Do you give yourself credit for managing your mental health during all of this?’ We all need to give ourselves credit.”

Normalization is an important therapeutic tool right now, says Nellie Scanlon, an ACA member and LPC in the counseling center at Slippery Rock University (SRU) in Pennsylvania. Scanlon, a temporary faculty member at SRU, started a support group this fall for students to talk about the loss, isolation and other feelings they have experienced during the pandemic. The group meets weekly via Zoom.

Like Bambacus, Scanlon says she is seeing an uptick in symptoms of depression and anxiety among the college student population she sees. “Many clients are using the phrase ‘It’s fine’ when they really mean they are not fine. I have been encouraging clients to allow themselves to feel what they are feeling and process those feelings in session. So often, we are expected to be OK and move on without acknowledging that our feelings of loss and loneliness are normal responses in times of crisis such as the current pandemic,” says Scanlon, who successfully defended her dissertation and earned her doctorate in counselor education at Duquesne University earlier this fall.

“I also remind clients that they are more resilient than they realize,” she says. “I ask clients to remember a time in the past when they were successful at bouncing back and talk about it. It seems to be personally impactful for them to recall when they have been resilient in the past, and that increases their confidence level to adjust to current life circumstances.”

Of course, there are also some tried-and-true interventions for addressing isolation and loneliness that counselors are no longer finding helpful or appropriate to use during the pandemic. The professionals interviewed for this article agree that counselors should put exposure therapy and similar techniques on the shelf for now. They say it simply isn’t appropriate to encourage clients struggling with depression, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or other diagnoses to interact with others in person at this time as a way to stave off isolation.

Bambacus notes that many of the go-to suggestions she would typically give to college students to boost their mental wellness, such as calling a friend to get together, going to a campus event or party, or simply getting out of the house to sit at a coffee shop for an hour, are not advisable at this time. She has been forced to consider other ways that she might help students make connections and avoid isolation. “This is definitely bringing out the creativity in us all right now — along with frustration,” Bambacus says with a chuckle.

“I think this is a real struggle given the current social restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” agrees Scanlon, the chair-elect of ACA’s North Atlantic Region and immediate past president of the Pennsylvania Counseling Association. “I have been encouraging clients to connect with others in a meaningful manner that is effective for them. … Needless to say, there still appears to be an overwhelming loss of personal connection with others because we are limited due to the pandemic in the how, what, when and where of connecting with others.”

Creative connections

Psychoeducation can be a helpful tool in situations in which clients assume that they can’t be social during the pandemic or even push back against that line of thinking, Holliman says. By making themselves aware of out-of-the-box options, counselors can be ready to offer suggestions. For example, Holliman notes that his local library offers book clubs that meet over Zoom.

“There are a lot of unique ways for us to connect with one another,” Holliman says. “Limited options doesn’t mean no options, and that’s something clients really need to hear. There are ways [to find connection], but you have to be creative. The counselor needs to be a creative co-creator of options.”

For many clients, especially those in recovery, the pandemic actually offers more options for attending 12-step meetings and support groups because so many of them are meeting online now, he says.

Holliman found psychoeducation to be a powerful tool recently when working with a woman with bipolar disorder who was estranged from her family and struggling with isolation. She ended up in the hospital due to dosage issues that led to toxicity from one of her medications. In a session following her hospitalization, the client confided in Holliman: “Other than you, those doctors in the hospital were the first people I’ve talked to in a long time.”

Holliman said he knew even prior to this session that relationships were a challenge for the client, but her hospitalization served as a tipping point and an indicator of how acute her isolation had become during the pandemic. During the session, Holliman spent a good deal of time normalizing the client’s experience with bipolar disorder, emphasizing that supports were available and connecting her with resources, including online support groups for individuals with bipolar disorder. Holliman told the client, “You may feel alone, but you don’t have to be alone.”

“She had no idea there were others like her out there,” Holliman says. “She made the comment, ‘I thought we all just ended up in asylums.’ She didn’t realize [there were supports]. She had just assumed, ‘This is how life goes.’”

Clients with bipolar disorder are at higher risk for isolation because of the rapid mood fluctuations of their disorder and the impact that can have on their close relationships, often causing these clients to become estranged from friends and family members, Holliman notes.

This client has engineered a significant turnaround since her hospitalization, according to Holliman, including rekindling her relationship with her parents. “Things aren’t perfect [in this client’s life], but they are better,” he says.

Bambacus also emphasizes the need for creativity to help clients find ways to avoid isolation during the pandemic. This fall, she started offering online office hours and helped organize a series of faculty talks (also held online) for her first-generation students on nonacademic topics such as impostor syndrome.

At the same time, she is encouraging her upperclassmen mentors to organize events for students in the mentoring program, with a focus on staying connected. If the event is in person, students must hold it outside and limit it to a small number of attendees. Other students are planning virtual events, such as game nights and a live “cooking show” in which students demonstrate how to make their favorite recipes over video chat. Still others are doing low-risk volunteer work, such as writing letters to older adults or doing a trash pickup outdoors.

Bambacus has also been checking in with students more frequently. For those exhibiting withdrawal or avoidance behaviors, she sometimes includes a gentle reminder that she needs to hear back from them.

“I’m watching everyone a little more carefully,” she says. “Especially students who put on a brave face, they often appreciate check-ins. … I am watching students who are more susceptible to slowing down during the semester and struggling and those who have taken breaks [withdrawn from enrollment] previously because of their mental health. Often, the first sign they are struggling is unresponsiveness. I get creative with my emails and give them a deadline, such as ‘I need to know by Friday.’ Once they respond, then I say, ‘Hey, you’re there. Let’s talk!’”

This fall, she has been emphasizing self-care and wellness among her students, including the importance of physical activity, eating and sleeping well, getting outside and turning off the news. She is also pushing the message that it is OK to ask for help when you are struggling. Even something as simple as encouraging students to call their friends and family members instead of texting, so that they actually hear one another’s voices, can foster stronger connection, she says.

“There’s so much healing in knowing that you’re not alone in your feelings of isolation, so create opportunities for clients to see that other people are in the same boat,” Bambacus says. “Maybe that means running more groups and offering those types of services. It can be held outside or virtually. [It’s] just having that space where clients can see that this is not just happening to them and that other people are surviving ‘in spite of’ and offering them some hope and options. Isolation is such a devious thing because it makes you think that you are the only one — you’re not just alone; you’re the only one who’s alone — and that’s just not true.”

Families and isolation: A group effort

For families struggling with isolation, Nixon is focusing on ways they can be intentional about prioritizing connection, both within and outside the family unit. With all the stressors families are facing during the pandemic, it is easy to lapse into bad habits, he notes. “When you get resolved to ‘this is how life is going to be,’ you kind of go through the motions,” says Nixon, a board member of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of ACA.

Step one of being intentional often involves creating and maintaining a daily schedule in the household, Nixon advises. He suggests setting times for family members to focus on work or school and times to focus on connecting as a family, including designated times to put away all electronic devices.

Family time should include activities that prompt family members to interact and engage with one another to minimize isolation and boost mental health, Nixon says. This could include everything from getting outside and playing in the yard to coloring or drawing together, playing board games, having an indoor dance party or engaging in a scavenger hunt. (For more ideas, see the article “Supporting families with engagement strategies during COVID-19.”)

The lack of in-person celebrations during the pandemic, especially surrounding birthdays, has been hard for young clients and families. Nixon has helped clients find new ways to connect with family and friends to mark special occasions, including blowing their celebratory candles out during video chats and organizing walk-by or drive-by “parades” of well-wishers.

Similarly, many of Nixon’s adolescent clients are missing the in-person interactions they would normally have with friends and peers through school and extracurricular activities. Here, intentionality also helps fill the void. Nixon asks adolescent clients to identify what they enjoyed most before the pandemic. The answers usually involve hanging out with friends, watching movies or playing video games together. One of the ways his clients have adapted is by setting a specific time to watch a movie simultaneously with friends (each in their own home) and then texting or video chatting with one another as they watch.

Nixon also encourages family clients to identify substitutes for things they enjoyed doing together before the pandemic. He uses a whiteboard in sessions to visualize clients’ ideas and prompt dialogue.

“I get their perspective and talk about what their preference and focus was before the pandemic. Was it being together at mealtimes? Then be intentional about that now. Or if sports were really important, organized sports may not be an option, but they can play as a family or set time aside to sit down and review tapes from past games and analyze them,” says Nixon, a past president of the Idaho Counseling Association. “Identify what was important to [clients] before, and help them realize that it’s still important and how to find a new context for it.”

Counselors can guide clients to find new rituals by identifying the core reason they enjoyed certain activities before the pandemic. Ask “why do families do what they do, and what meaning do they give to it? Then try and find something else that will give them the same meaning in a different context,” Nixon advises.

For one family on Nixon’s caseload, family meals were very important, and they found connection by going out to eat in restaurants together. This became more challenging when many restaurants closed their dining rooms throughout the spring and summer.

Nixon helped the family reframe this ritual and brainstorm ways they could re-create the aspects of eating out that they most enjoyed. After breaking it down, the family identified the core features they enjoyed as trying new restaurants and experiencing new cuisines together. The family had a self-imposed rule of never eating at the same restaurant twice in one month or having the same type of cuisine twice in one week, so they were always looking for new places to try, Nixon says.

“For them, what was meaningful was … the adventure of trying something new and ordering with the intention of sharing it with someone at the table,” he says. “The intention was to be adventurous, to try something new and to share that together.”

Once they came to this realization, Nixon suggested the family experience new foods together by learning to cook them at home. Their initial reply? “We don’t cook,” Nixon recalls.

Undeterred, Nixon suggested the family search the internet for ideas and how-to videos. The family started small, making an appetizer, and found it was easier than they had assumed it would be. From there, the activity blossomed into setting aside one night per week to replicate dishes together that they had previously enjoyed at restaurants.

“They didn’t want to mess up and fail, and they didn’t want to waste time and money [on specialty ingredients]. But they found that nothing was ever a failure, just as with going out to a restaurant that they didn’t like. It was the trying that they enjoyed,” Nixon says.

Now, even with restaurants reopening, this family continues with its at-home cooking adventures. They set aside the money they save by eating at home to splurge on an occasional restaurant meal that they previously would have considered a treat.

“The opportunity that this family has taken to take a step outside of their comfort zone has brought them closer together,” Nixon says. “They have found that family members have skills that they did not completely see before, and they have found that small changes have always impacted the family. In the past, the small changes were seen negatively, [but] now they see the opportunity and positivity that can come within the family.”

Looking ahead

Nixon says he has been contemplating the long-term effects the COVID-19 pandemic might have on mental health, especially with the increased physical and social isolation that will return for many people during the winter months. As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the U.S., combined with the arrival of the traditional flu season, it is possible that states or localities may reimpose some of the stringent lockdown measures, such as school and business closures, that happened back in the spring.

It is possible that counselors might witness an uptick not only of isolating behaviors but also feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation among clients, Nixon says. With that in mind, he is increasing his screenings of clients for safety, harm and abuse, plus making sure that he shares resources such as crisis hotline numbers.

“I have been thinking about that a lot lately: how to help families and clients with the potential for an extended stay at home and the long-term aspect with winter coming on,” Nixon says. “How can families be intentional [to avoid isolation]? What’s important to [a client’s] family, and how do you continue to keep that ember burning?”

 

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Techniques for helping children navigate anxiety related to COVID-19

By Celine Cluff and Victoria Kress September 29, 2020

Counselors are working hard to help children and families navigate the uncharted territories the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced. Many children, especially those who are already managing stressful situations, have experienced an uptick in anxiety this year due to the pandemic, the spotlight on racial injustices and ensuing conflicts, and the various related challenges 2020 has presented.

In this article, we discuss several strategies that counselors can use during these difficult times to help children manage their anxiety.

Clear communication

Children have many questions about the challenges we are currently facing. Adults should explain things to children in clear, concrete terms. For example, in trying to educate a 5-year-old on safety and the pandemic, it would be best to say something along these lines: “There is a virus that can make people sick, and we can catch it. It is important to wash your hands and to keep space between you and other people that is as long as your bed.”

Clear, open communication is key. Children are inquisitive by nature, and it is important to show them that an adult or caretaker is available for exchanges of information. Keeping that exchange simple and age appropriate will help set the child’s mind at ease without causing them unnecessary stress.

On the other hand, shutting down a child’s request for information (out of fear of upsetting them, for example) is not helpful to children. Having a dialogue with a child is always a good idea because it can alleviate some of the tension and turn it into an opportunity for connection and care.

Taming worry dragons

Jane Garland and Sandra Clark — creators of the Taming Worry Dragons: A Manual for Children, Parents and Other Coaches — provide one approach that can help children manage anxiety. A “worry dragon” is characterized by negative or unpleasant thoughts, scared feelings and worries that will not go away.

For some people, worry dragons show up only occasionally. For others, these creatures are constant companions. The dragons might even present themselves in a herd with some frequency.

It can be very tiring to spend so much energy worrying. Having worry dragons means that a person (or child) has a special talent, which is worrying all the time. These individuals are likely able to imagine the worst possible scenario for any situation and to see it in vivid color, with all the gory details.

Children can be taught that tame worry dragons do not scare people and, in fact, can even be useful. What follows are some tips and tricks on how to hone dragon-taming skills.

Scheduling

Children can learn to better manage anxiety through thought-stopping tools — such as dedicating time to worry. When children start worrying actively about topics such as death or the possibility of losing a caretaker or other loved one to COVID-19, this skill can prove useful. Note that this type of worrying typically starts around the ages of 4 or 5; this is when children become aware of mortality (nobody lives forever) and other realities. Mixing this realization with the active and vivid imagination of a child can lead to the creation of worry dragons.

Using an egg timer for “worry time” works well. If a child is repeatedly asking if they are going to be OK because they have been directly or indirectly exposed to news about the coronavirus, a parent or caretaker would get the timer and tell the child they can dedicate five minutes to worrying about the virus. Afterward, they are to leave worries about the virus behind and start doing something else. Because children like to know what happens next and respond well to routines, this technique can help them feel in better control of some of their unpleasant or unwanted emotions.

By using scheduling to integrate worrying into daily activities, the anxious child can take a proactive approach in taming their worries instead of the worries taking hold of the child’s mind at random times throughout the day (or night). 

Creative imagination

Another interactive way of helping children manage anxiety is to have them write or draw their worries on a piece of paper and toss them into a worry jar. By shrinking, harnessing, locking up or trapping worries in a small space such as a jar, the child can make the worries more approachable.

Another option is to buy some colorful miniature pompoms for the child, which they can then place into the jar. When the time comes to work with the jar (e.g., the child is worried about something in particular and cannot relax), the parent or caretaker would extend an invitation to the child to pick a color (or multiple colors) and talk about it as if it represented the worry they cannot let go. This approach helps distract the child (through the texture and visualization of the soft, fluffy, colorful pompoms) while still allowing them to process whatever is bothering them.

Creating a routine

Children thrive on routine, and they require scheduled downtime. Scheduling time to relax and recharge is vital to harmonious home life. A good place to start would be using some of the tools covered in this article in combination with giving the family time to connect, restore and feel love (preferably without the use of a tablet or other device).

The deepening of a connection to a loved one can be a reassuring experience when a child’s sense of safety has been compromised due to the unforeseen circumstances families find themselves in currently. The suggestions in this article were curated to help families navigate these challenging times together while equipping children with helpful tools to combat anxiety. These methods can be applied regardless of the source of anxiety because they are designed to increase the level of control in children who experience anxiety. Helping children hone these skills from an early age can equip them with valuable coping mechanisms to last a lifetime.

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Related reading, from Counseling Today columnist Cheryl Fisher: “The Counseling Connoisseur: How to talk to children about the coronavirus

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Celine Cluff is a registered clinical counselor practicing in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in psychoanalytic studies from Middlesex University in London and is currently completing her doctorate in occupational psychology. Her private practice focuses on family therapy, couples therapy and parenting challenges. Contact her at celine.cluff@yahoo.com.

Victoria Kress is a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio. She is a licensed professional clinical counselor and supervisor, national certified counselor and certified clinical mental health counselor. She has published extensively on many topics related to counselor practice. Contact her at victoriaEkress@gmail.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

School counseling in the time of the coronavirus

By Laurie Meyers September 28, 2020

“School counselor” is a deceptively simple title. In reality, school counselors play many roles, including social and emotional educator, academic adviser, conflict mediator, wellness coach, mental health therapist, student champion, educational collaborator and family liaison.

Now, with the advent of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, many school counselors have become connectors and comforters-in-chief — not just to students but to parents and school staff.

Last spring, schools began closing in response to the pandemic. According to Education Week, 48 states; four U.S. territories; Washington, D.C.; and the Department of Defense Education Activity eventually ordered or recommended school closures affecting at least 50.8 million public school students. Suddenly, students, families, counselors, teachers and administrators all had to find a way to virtually re-create their in-person school routines. This already-challenging shift was complicated by the significant number of students who lacked access to high-speed internet or desktop, laptop or tablet computers.

Even before the pandemic, civil rights and education groups had been decrying what they had dubbed the “homework gap” because many teachers were increasingly assigning work that required internet access. Already at a disadvantage, these disenfranchised students — many of whom were Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) — now faced being completely locked out of school academic activities for the rest of the year.

According to “Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap,” a recent report by organizations that include the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Urban League, when the wave of school closures occurred, 16.9 million children lacked high-speed home internet access (a number that included 1 in 3 BIPOC families), and 7.3 million did not have a computer or tablet. Many schools spent the spring and summer scrambling to provide devices and internet access to students — a task that was still incomplete going into the new school year. Stories of students struggling to keep up with online instruction on cell phones are still not uncommon.

In addition, when the economy took a nosedive as the coronavirus spread, it made it hard to focus on anything but survival for many families. But even financially secure families found it challenging to provide the ideal learning environment as — in many cases — parents working from home with multiple children wrestled with carving out a physical space and a time for each person to be online. Students missed getting to see their friends and participating in extracurricular activities. Sports seasons were canceled. The theater curtains never went up on school plays. Rites of passage such as prom and graduation ceremonies largely fell by the wayside.

And now it is fall, meaning a brand new school year. Even so, in many parts of the country, the football fields and stands will remain empty, the marching band instruments will stay silent and there will be no homecoming dances. Things are decidedly not back to normal. For that matter, there is relatively widespread belief that “normal” will never return. No one knows what the future will hold.

So, it’s not surprising that parents, students and school personnel are all feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Continuing to hold classes online while simultaneously ensuring that students and families have the needed technological resources — or, in some cases, the absolute basics, such as enough food to eat — continues to be a team effort.

Because safeguarding the mental, emotional and physical welfare of students is the essence of what school counselors do, these professionals have typically been at the center of the problem-solving process since the arrival of the coronavirus. They have conducted check-in phone calls to make sure students had the necessary equipment and internet access; helped parents (or grandparents) with technological troubleshooting; arranged for families in need to receive gift cards and community resources; responded to requests from teachers to find out why students weren’t showing up for online class (and then worked to resolve whatever the barrier was); reassured stressed-out parents; coached families on how to set up a structured school day; made mental health referrals for students in crisis; and provided moral support to teachers, administrators and each other. All while finding ways to continue offering academic guidance, focusing on students’ emotional and social learning, and giving specific support to children who were struggling with various personal and school-related issues.

Counseling Today spoke to several school counselors at the end of the 2019-2020 school year and as they prepared for the new 2020 fall semester to learn more about the challenges of performing their jobs in the midst of a pandemic.

 

Linda Colón
Counselor for prekindergarten and kindergarten students, Bancroft Elementary School, Washington, D.C.

Bancroft is a Title I school (i.e., a facility that receives financial assistance due to a high population of students from families with low incomes) with a majority Latinx student body that also includes children of Ethiopian immigrants. Many of the families in the district live in poverty and often share relatively small living quarters with extended family.

Under normal circumstances, American Counseling Association member Linda Colón gives Bancroft’s youngest students their earliest lessons in social and emotional learning. By observing (and joining) students at play, reading aloud to them, incorporating toys, conversing with puppets and showing self-produced videos, Colón teaches prekindergartners and kindergartners basic social skills and how to recognize and regulate their emotions.

Getting to know students’ families and getting them invested in their children’s learning has always been an integral part of Colón’s counseling approach. She says that she’s “planting a seed” of awareness about the importance of education and attendance from an early age. Colón meets with parents to answer questions and, if requested, gives them advice on how to reinforce the social and emotional lessons that their children are learning.

Another benefit of establishing a relationship with families — and checking in regularly via phone or in person (during nonpandemic times) — is that Colón can get a better sense of the problems with which the families might be struggling. If they trust the counselors and teachers, she says, they will be more likely to reach out if they need help addressing emotional or mental health problems or accessing vital resources such as food and shelter.

Colón has been finding new ways to stay connected to her students and their families since March, when schools across the metropolitan region shut their doors and transitioned to online learning to finish out the school year because of the coronavirus. Schools in Washington, D.C., opted to begin the new year virtually as well, with an option to reevaluate in November.

“We can’t just say, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” Colón says. “We have to figure it out. We owe it to the kids.”

Before in-person learning ceased completely in March, Colón, knowing that the children were feeling anxious, created a lesson centered on “claiming strategies.” She reminded the children that when they were really afraid, it was helpful to talk about it, and she provided them with some age-appropriate safety information.

But the most important piece was the practical activity: washing hands. “We want to keep the germs away, so we wash our hands for 20 seconds,” Colón told the children, reinforcing the statement with videos and puppet demonstrations of hand-washing.

Colón also made videos so that the children’s social and emotional learning could continue virtually. The videos covered topics such as keeping a positive mindset, practicing breathing techniques and exercising mindfulness.

Colón also spoke to some of her students and their families one-on-one, either on the phone or via Microsoft Meetings, to find out how they were coping, to offer a sympathetic ear to stressed-out parents and to provide a reassuring presence for anxious children. She has given her phone number to parents and encouraged them to call or text her if they need help. As distance learning continues, she has been encouraging teachers to reach out as much as possible too. In addition, Colón has worked directly with parents to help solve technological problems.

This year, one of her initiatives is to help parents find a way to provide a space for children to take a break from their surroundings — a relaxation bubble. Many of her students live in small spaces, so the “bubble” might be something as simple and small as a blanket draped over a chair to make a mini tent.

Even at a young age, children are more aware of what is going on around them than most people realize, Colón says. They know that people are sick and dying, and at this age, children are less able to process the fear, which leaves them at risk of getting stuck in fight-or-flight mode. When they are at school, they can see their friends on the playground and have other opportunities to get away, but at home, exposure to trauma — even if only through the television — may be inescapable.

Activities such as drawing, watching a fun video or escaping to their relaxation bubble can help relieve the agitation, Colón says. The staff at Colón’s school has requested that markers, crayons and paper be sent to all the families.

Research also shows that when people are experiencing trauma, simply making a connection with a sympathetic presence can help, Colón says. So, she believes that keeping in contact with students and families is one of the most important things school staff can do right now.

“It’s finding a way to establish that connectedness,” she says. “When you’re in school, you’re waving to them [students and families], saying ‘Hi, good morning,’ singing a silly song. You’re doing something to make a connection that doesn’t have anything to do with academics.”

“I think our [school counseling] services are needed more than ever,” Colón says. “We’re the ones who are getting the pulse [of the community].”

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Natasha Griffith
Counselor for first through sixth grades and homeless coordinator, Dorothy I. Height Elementary School, Washington, D.C.

Height is also a Title I school, with many of its families living at or below the poverty level. Most of the students are Black — primarily first-generation Ethiopian. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of students are Latinx.

“I think this year, I’ll feel proud and accomplished if I can master Microsoft Teams and have whole class sessions,” says ACA member Natasha Griffith, whose school — like Colón’s — will be all virtual until at least November. She has modest goals for kicking off the school year, including holding a few smaller group sessions with students in fourth through sixth grades. Griffith’s role as the school’s homeless coordinator — which involves helping families in transitional housing find financial and community resources — can make that goal challenging. “I have to focus on the barriers that children and their parents face,” she says.

Griffith says she and her co-workers “hit the ground running” last spring when school buildings closed, distributing gift cards from the city’s public services department and money from a GoFundMe campaign to the neediest families and making sure that students had computers. But there will be an ongoing need for assistance during the current school year. In fact, although Griffith wasn’t officially working over the summer, she heard from families in search of additional gift cards and did some interpreting for the school’s technology contact, who doesn’t speak Spanish. Most of the students received computers or iPads in the spring, but stable internet access was a persistent problem, so the school has been setting families up with mobile hotspot devices (routers connected to a cellular data network that provides Wi-Fi connectivity).

Griffith will also continue to call families to check in on students who aren’t showing up online. If their absence is due to technological problems, she will make sure they get the resources they need. If the absence is because the students and families aren’t adapting well to virtual learning, then Griffith will do her best to help them navigate the unfamiliar territory and highlight how important it is for students to participate so that they don’t fall behind. “So many students weren’t participating [last spring],” she says. Even if families aren’t experiencing technological difficulties, many of them still aren’t sold on virtual learning, Griffith says.

Unfortunately, as is the case in many communities across the country, there will be cases in which Griffith isn’t able to get in touch with families. The counseling staff at Height does work closely with a social worker from Washington’s department of public health who is responsible for connecting families with resources, and Griffith says that she has been able to accomplish a lot. Even so, the reality is that educational continuity is incredibly difficult for schools to provide during the pandemic.

As she did last spring, Griffith will continue to help bridge the gap between parents and teachers. Many parents are feeling overwhelmed, and coping with online learning is yet another source of frustration for them. Griffith provides a listening ear and works toward helping families see that the school staff is there to help, not to judge. She is also concentrating on developing lesson plans that help students navigate the virtual landscape and encouraging them to ask for help when they need it.

Another challenge Griffith is facing is that she has no designated “classroom time” online. To present lessons, she has to be flexible and grab any spare time that teachers have in their class schedules. To supplement, she is planning on developing videos covering the social and emotional learning topics that make up the core part of her counseling curriculum, including managing anger, building self-esteem, learning to identify emotions, developing resilience and using tools for academic success. She has been rearranging her apartment to carve out a space for filming. The videos will be posted on Microsoft Teams for the students to access on demand.

In the spring, Griffith created a few virtual “lunch bunches” for small groups of students. She and the children would play games such as self-care bingo; squares included actions such as taking a shower, eating breakfast, listening to your body, taking a break, meditating, calling a friend and saying something good about yourself. She would also ask students about what they were doing outside of their classroom lessons. “It gave them a place to talk about missing their friends,” she says. “It was also something social that wasn’t related to school.”

Griffith is starting up the virtual lunches again during the current school year. She would also like to find a way to virtually re-create the in-person restorative circles that she used to hold in school. The activity, which usually involved 20-22 students, was focused on building community. Griffith would ask open-ended questions (usually focused on having respect for fellow students) and present students with a talking piece to pass around the circle. Students could choose to keep the piece and speak, or pass it on.

“I think restorative circles work well because they allow students to express their feelings about various social and emotional learning topics,” she says. “It allows students to take ownership and be an involved participant in the classroom community.”

Griffith will continue to connect with students any way she can while her school is held online, but she believes there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. “Especially for these kids,” she says. “Saying in person, ‘You’ve got this. You can do this.’ That’s what I live for as a school counselor … [to] make a difference and tell them they matter.”

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Judy Trigiani
Counselor for kindergarten through sixth grades, Spring Hill Elementary School, McLean, Virginia.

Spring Hill has a large population of international students, many of them the children of diplomats and business people from around the world. Some of these families temporarily relocated to their home countries to wait out the pandemic and have not yet returned to the U.S.

The plan for ACA member Judy Trigiani’s school district is to operate exclusively online through at least the first quarter of the school year and then to reevaluate. But as Trigiani noted at the end of the prior school year, one of the biggest burdens of the pandemic for people is not knowing when it will end. Or, in the case of schools, when bringing students back in person will not carry the threat of widespread community spread. “We are trying to plan for the unknown. We don’t know when we’ll go back yet,” Trigiani says.

In the meantime, Trigiani and the rest of the staff at Spring Hill continue to try to keep things as “normal” as possible. Traditionally, the school’s year starts with an open house and a new family and student orientation. This year is no exception; however, the events will all be virtual. Families and students will connect via Blackboard Collaborate, where staff will introduce themselves and talk about the school community, scheduling and resources available to parents. A question-and-answer session will follow. The school is also hosting town hall meetings and a kindergarten orientation to present new resources and answer questions.

This year, there will also be a technology orientation to demonstrate Blackboard features such as the icons for accessing the microphone and video and “raising” your hand; how to magnify the screen; agreeing, disagreeing and reacting to the teacher and fellow students with emojis; and where to find the chat box, Trigiani says. The technology orientation will also cover some of the other programs the school will be using. Blackboard Collaborate enables staff to post videos and PowerPoints and share their screens. The tech session will also demonstrate how to access the website and the asynchronous learning area (video sessions that students can watch on their own schedule). Trigiani has also been preparing PowerPoint presentations for parents on topics such as setting up their children’s workspaces and how to talk to children about COVID-19.

Trigiani and the rest of the counseling staff will continue to visit the virtual classrooms every morning to check in and say, “We’re here if you need anything.” There are 18 classrooms per counselor, and counselors go into one classroom each day, she explains. Sometimes, they conduct a lesson. Other times, Trigiani will show up early just to chat with the kids, asking them to use the emojis to let her know how they are doing. If a student expresses distress or Trigiani hears or sees something that causes her concern, she meets with the student individually online and works to address the issue.

Individual counseling, social skills instruction, school counseling programs, parent meetings, the identification and sharing of resources — all of the normal work of school counselors also continues virtually. In addition, Trigiani works with parents who are struggling to cope with their children’s behavioral, social and emotional issues. If necessary, the counseling staff makes referrals to outside mental health resources.

The key, Trigiani says, is something that one of her former bosses used to say: “Keep your community and people informed, and stay as positive and flexible as you can.”

Trigiani believes that technology will continue to become more and more critical to school counseling, even after schools decide to return to the in-person model. Not only will retaining a virtual element allow medically fragile students better access to education, but it will also help counselors prepare students for 21st-century jobs by enabling them to give students training in online social skills, Trigiani asserts.

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Randi Vogel
Counselor for sixth grade, Thomas Pyle Middle School, Bethesda, Maryland.

Pyle also has a significant number of international students, which means that the student population is somewhat transitory.

“This pandemic has really brought to light the social-emotional needs of our students,” ACA member Randi Vogel says. “Even students who we considered very solid are having difficulties.”

In the spring, several students who were already struggling with mental health issues deteriorated further with the loss of a structured school environment and ended up needing to be hospitalized, she says. But even students who had no history of mental health issues were experiencing anxiety and stress.

After school moved online, Vogel and her team put out an announcement on the school portal that they were available via email and Zoom. They also sent out regular surveys asking students how they were feeling, if they needed anything or whether they just wanted to share.

One girl replied that she needed a Chromebook laptop to keep up with her school assignments. Another student said, “I miss you — and I fell and broke my arm.” Some students expressed that they just really wanted to talk, so Vogel and her team connected with them individually via video chats.

The surveys also asked students what they were doing to take care of themselves and to whom they had reached out. Every time that Vogel spoke to a student, she would ask them what they were doing for themselves.

Vogel’s district is starting the new school year with virtual-only instruction and will reassess in November. Although many students may have initially enjoyed the novelty of learning from home, that sentiment generally seems to have worn off, Vogel says. “I have heard from several parents and students that they truly miss the school experience — chatting in the halls with their friends, switching classes, the cafeteria, after-school activities, the bus rides to and from school.”

Although her school can’t re-create those experiences, the days will be more structured and organized for students this year, she says. There will be more live and interactive instruction, in contrast to this past spring, when teachers primarily gave lessons via “asynchronous learning,” which involved using previously recorded videos that students would watch on their own. Teachers then offered online “office hours” to field follow-up questions.

“Parents definitely want more ‘live’ instruction and for more of the day to mimic what occurs in the building,” Vogel says. Although this may help virtual lessons to feel more like regular class, she anticipates that students will have difficulty being on their screens for so many hours, despite the breaks that have been built into the schedule.

“We, as counselors, will continue to reach out to our students to see how we can help them virtually,” she says. “This might look like lunch bunches or initiating one-on-one Zoom calls as check-ins.”

Vogel says her counseling department really prided itself on always being available to students during the day. In fact, they had several students who were issued “flash passes” so they could come to the counseling office anytime they needed a break. “Once we are back in the building, I expect that to resume,” she says. “However, it is much more challenging to establish relationships with middle schoolers via Zoom.”

Because so many students are struggling or just need a little extra help coping, Vogel and her colleagues will be incorporating more mindfulness and stress-reduction activities and class meetings into the virtual day for students. “I think it will be very beneficial to have the students hear from one another how they are managing and that they are not alone with their feelings,” she says.

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

ACA School Counselor Connection (counseling.org/membership/aca-and-you/school-counselors/school-counselor)

ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/)

Books & DVDs (imis.counseling.org/store)

Books

  • A School Counselor’s Guide to Small Groups: Coordination, Leadership, and Assessment edited by Sarah I . Springer, Lauren J. Moss, Nader Manavizadeh and Ashley Pugliese
  • Critical Incidents in School Counseling, Third Edition, by Tarrell Awe Agahe Portman, Chris Wood and Heather J. Fye
  • Developing and Managing Your School Guidance and Counseling Program, Fifth Edition, by Norman C. Gysbers and Patricia Henderson
  • Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools, Third Edition, by John J. Murphy

DVDs

  • Acute and Severe Behavior Problems presented by Dave Scott
  • Bullying in Schools: Six Methods of Intervention presented by Ken Rigby
  • Managing Conflict in Schools: A New Approach to Disciplinary Offense presented by John Winslade
  • Quality Circle Time in the Secondary School presented by Jenny Mosley

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.