Just this morning, a neighbor asked if I counsel 12-year-olds as her son is experiencing a high level of bullying at school. She said bullying in her son’s school has been much worse since Covid. Honestly, it makes sense to me.

As a counselor, I’ve come to understand that “hurt people hurt people.” This simply means that when someone is hurting, their judgement, empathy, and behavior is often impaired. This doesn’t excuse bullying or any bad behavior, of course, but it does add perspective.

Since March, we’ve been subjected to, in varying degrees, a downward spiral of illness, economic hardship, academic distress, political nonsense, isolation, depression, and anxiety. The toll on our children has been immensely underrated.

If you find 2020 to be one of the most difficult years in memory, just imagine if you have only a few years to compare it with, as children do. Strip away safety and comfort. Take away activities, exercise, and the dedicated, loving teachers and support staff found in schools. Toss out playdates, proms, homecoming, plays, movies, birthday parties, and holiday celebrations.

Along the way, parents and grandparents have sporadically become frustrated homeschool teachers. Kids crave structure and can't help that they are shuffled from remote learning to classrooms and back again due to Covid exposure. They receive a hodgepodge of inconsistent teachings on masks versus no masks, gatherings or no gatherings.

My own teens have experienced all of the above and repeated quarantines from school due to direct exposure. We feel disoriented; flustered and angry at times, isolated and sad at others.

And then there are the losses. At first, the hospitalizations and deaths didn’t seem to reach us personally, but now they do. Counselors like me have spent many hours with those in deep grief due to the pandemic. I’ve comforted medical personnel who've been stretched too far and prayed with spouses and children who have had to make terrible medical decisions on behalf of their loved one. It is all just so, so much.

With all that is going on, we often forget that our young people hear us talking and they add our sadness, confusion, and tension to their own.

This is our opportunity to show our children that we can manage adversity, learn from it, and grow through it. We can teach them to take better care of their mental wellness by first, taking care of our own and then, encouraging them to develop coping skills of their own. We have learned that kids who receive mental health support have a lower risk LONG TERM of addiction, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, bullying behaviors, and a variety of heartbreaking issues.

I am inviting all mental health professionals to volunteer an hour or two (or more) each week to see a school-aged student for one session, free of charge. Send me your contact information, credentials, and location and I’ll compile a list to be distributed throughout our community.

While our mental health community has been very busy since March, we don’t mind adding a little more to our plate if it means that our students know that they are not alone, they aren't crazy for feeling overwhelmed, and that we are all in this together. Whether it’s just the free one hour session or a family decides to continue the path of counseling and wellness, gaining the skills to work through hard times, anxiety, and depression are worth their investment of time and energy. Counselors can often be flexible and conduct sessions by phone, Facetime, or Zoom and use many methods to help folks feel safe and comfortable.

Whether you choose to visit a counselor this season or not, please follow some simple steps that will help you and your children maintain consistency and self care. Get fresh air and exercise daily. Observe normal bedtime and awaken on time for school. Eat healthy and regularly. Drink lots of water and not a lot of alcohol. Participate wholeheartedly in school, even if remote. Read helpful books and articles. Spend time in prayer, meditation, or quiet. Speak with kinder tones and do nice things for others.

While social distancing from family and friends, don’t forget to connect through texts, calls, or Facetime. Talk about your feelings, not just your activities. Finally, please take time to listen well to one another and offer words of encouragement and grace.

Blessings and good health to all.

Dr. Andrea Cook may be reached at drcookappt@gmail.com

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