Arianna Huffington: Introducing Thriving Kids

It’s no secret that parents are having a rough time navigating the pandemic. A sampling of recent headlines tells the story: “The Agony of Parents of Children Under 5,” “Every Parent I Know Wants To Walk Into The Sea Right Now,” “Omicron Means Parents Are Doing It All Again, Except This Time Dead Inside.”

Here’s how Melinda Wenner Moyer summed up pandemic parenting for The Atlantic: “We’ve reached a stage of the pandemic where finding the right words to describe our lot is simply an exercise in absurdity. We are broken. We have nothing left in us but screams of anger and pain.” And in fact, some are letting them out. In January, a group of frustrated moms met on a field in Boston for a cathartic “primal scream.” Also included in the festivities were a round of swearing, a longest scream contest where 1st place was 30 seconds, and a scream in honor of those who would have been there but were, yes, too busy and overwhelmed to have time even to scream.

What they’re giving voice to is the very real truth that parents and families are in crisis. And to support them and answer their calls (and screams) for help, Thrive has launched our new Thriving Kids curriculum. It’s a comprehensive set of tools, solutions, expert advice and science-backed Microsteps for parents to help their children — and themselves — thrive in uncertain times.

Certainly the numbers point to an urgent need for solutions. According to the CDC, in the first year of the pandemic, emergency room visits for mental health issues went up 31% for children ages 12 to 17. In the fall of 2021, a coalition of leading pediatric health groups declared a “national emergency” in children’s mental health. And parents aren’t doing any better. Using nationwide survey data, Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University, found that 70% percent of moms and 54% of dads are stressed and overwhelmed, with about half of parents feeling hopeless and depressed.

That’s why Thriving Kids is so important. We might be entering a new phase of the pandemic, and we all hope cases continue to decline, but the challenges parents are facing are definitely not diminishing. The course is designed not just to give parents strategies and Microsteps they can start using right away, but to also build healthy habits that will help their families thrive for the long-term.

We know, for example, that sleep has always been a challenge for parents. But according to the CDC, fewer than a quarter of teens are getting the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night. The CDC also states that children and teens who are sleep deprived are at greater risk not just of mental health and behavioral problems, but also of diabetes and obesity. As parents we spend so much time teaching our children all the skills they need to succeed in the world, but we seldom teach them much about sleep as a strategy for success. As Dr. Judith Owens, Director of Sleep Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, says, sleep is “just as important as good nutrition, physical activity, and wearing your seatbelt.”

Our diets also play a huge role not just in our physical health, but our cognitive health. When so many adults and children alike are struggling with “pandemic brain,” our food choices are key to helping us sharpen our focus and tap into our creativity. They’re also key to improving our mental health, which is always important, but especially now, since global rates of children’s anxiety and depression have doubled since the start of the pandemic, according to the journal JAMA Pediatrics. And yet, a University of Michigan poll found that one in five parents said their family has been eating more fast food during the pandemic. Many parents know from experience that in stressful times, we often take comfort in sugary, processed foods — and that’s especially true for children. But as Thriving Kids makes clear, eating healthy doesn’t need to be more time consuming or more expensive — or any less delicious and fun.

We’ve broken up Thriving Kids into two sections that equip parents with the concrete strategies and solutions they need. Part one begins with a mindset shift for parents, urging them to put their own oxygen mask on first. As parents, we have a tendency to see taking care of ourselves as a luxury we cannot afford. But the fact remains — if we’re burned out, sleep deprived, and neglecting our own basic needs, we’re simply not going to be able to show up for our children in the ways we want to. What parents need right now are simple, concrete tools they can use, and that’s what Thriving Kids provides. We share Microsteps on sleep, nutrition and hydration, tips for building a supportive parent “tribe,” ideas for calming bedtime rituals to set the whole family up for better sleep, and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to help kids reduce stress in the moment. For parents struggling to come up with kid-friendly meals, we offer delicious, healthy “brain food” ideas you can serve to your kids or — even better — make together. All these tools are designed to help parents and kids navigate these times with less stress and more joy, but what I especially love is that each one creates an opportunity for parent-child connection. 

Part two is all about creating a healthier relationship with technology, offering actionable tips for both parents and kids. This was a growing challenge long before anybody had ever heard of Zoom and virtual school — and the virtual fatigue that we soon learned goes with them. For both parents and children alike, how we use technology has a profound effect on every aspect of our well-being, from sleep and nutrition to movement, focus and our ability to connect with others and with ourselves.

We’re all facing the same paradox — the technology that’s been a lifeline for families, allowing children to attend remote school, and keeping us connected to friends and loved ones, is also overwhelming us with stress. It’s a major challenge, but also a major opportunity for parents to lead by example for their kids.

As with adults, kids’ screen time has skyrocketed. According to a study in JAMA Pediatrics, the average time children spend in front of a screen has hit 7.7 hours — nearly double what it was before the pandemic. As Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, puts it, “Kids spend more time with media and technology than they do with their parents, time in school, or any other thing.” And all that screen time is taking a toll on kids’ mental health as well as their ability to do their best work. According to Common Sense Media’s research, two thirds of teens now multitask while doing homework — with profoundly negative results on their ability to concentrate and synthesize information.

Pandemic lockdowns also saw an increase in gaming. For many kids, online gaming has been a welcome opportunity to socialize and connect — including with their parents. But too much gaming poses specific risks, including brain changes linked to addictive behaviors, according to neuroimaging research from the journal Addiction Biology. Some children develop cravings for sweets while playing video games. And dangerous or violent video games can trigger our fight-or-flight response, leading to a constant state of hyperarousal, which in turn can lead to difficulties showing compassion, expressing creativity, and learning.

Not surprisingly, as screen time has gone up, time for physical activity has gone down. A study led by Dr. Pooja Tandon, of the University of Washington School of Medicine, found that nearly 1 in 10 children don’t have a single day with an hour of physical activity. “If you’re doing screen time, you’re not doing something else, and that something else could be being physically active,” Tandon says. “It could be sleeping. It could be interacting with other humans, loved ones. And all of those things are considered good for your mental health.”

Meanwhile the vast majority of us have turned into “zombie eaters,” mindlessly eating, often overeating, while watching TV or scrolling through TikTok or Instagram.

The way parents use technology can also affect the connection with their children. “Technoference,” a term used by researchers to describe the distracting presence of screens while parenting, has been found to have a negative impact on parent-child bonding. A study by researchers from UCLA found that too much screen time impaired children’s ability to read non-verbal emotional cues, such as facial expressions and body language.

That’s why it’s so important to set boundaries with technology as a family. It impacts not just our individual well-being, but connections within the family. Creating these boundaries might seem daunting, but it’s not about swearing off technology. Thriving Kids gives parents too-small-to-fail Microsteps, like taking a tech “time out,” or putting away your phone during meals. 

We all want to be the best parents we can be for our children. Parenting has never been easy, and it was a challenge even before for millions of people around the world family life, work and school began happening under the same roof. Even with most kids around the country thankfully going back to school, we know our future is going to be defined by continued disruption and uncertainty. That’s why it’s all the more important to establish healthy routines and habits that form a firm foundation for kids and families to build a thriving life on, one Microstep at a time.

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