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caption: Jim Mazza, a psychologist and professor at the University of Washington, teaching a free online class to help parents and kids through the upheavals of Covid-19
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Jim Mazza, a psychologist and professor at the University of Washington, teaching a free online class to help parents and kids through the upheavals of Covid-19

Is your family's mental health taking a hit from Covid-19? Take this class

Not long ago, Jim Mazza’s wife, Lizz, received a text from a good friend.

“I am going to wring my kid’s neck, you know, I'm going to go to jail because that kid is not going to survive,” Jim recalls the friend writing.

The text was meant to be funny, but there was some truth to it. A lot of parents are struggling with their emotions right now.

“There’s frustration, irritability, coming from just having everybody in one small space all the time, trying to manage parenting and working and partnering,” said Lizz Dexter-Mazza, Jim’s wife. “All of those pieces together are just out of our norm.”

Lizz and Jim are both psychologists. Jim is on the faculty at the University of Washington College of Education, and Lizz is in private practice. They are both experts in DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. DBT was developed at the University of Washington by Dr. Marsha Linehan, who is now retired. It focuses on mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and problem-solving skills.

The Mazzas co-wrote the book DBT Skills In Schools, a social-emotional learning curriculum for students in grades 6-12 that uses modified DBT skills.

When COVID-19 hit, Lizz and Jim realized that their kids would not be getting any social-emotional learning during the school closures. Mindful that they were facing a crisis that would tax everyone's mental well-being, they decided to teach a DBT class to their kids themselves.

“So if we are going to do it for you guys, why don’t we invite some of your friends to do it with us,” Lizz recalls saying to her kids. Eventually they made the decision to offer the lessons to everyone.

caption: Jim Mazza and Lizz Dexter-Mazza, at home and seen through their webcam. The two hold free, daily online classes for kids and parents on how to cope during Covid-19
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Jim Mazza and Lizz Dexter-Mazza, at home and seen through their webcam. The two hold free, daily online classes for kids and parents on how to cope during Covid-19
Credit: KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang

Now, every Tuesday and Thursday, Jim and Lizz hold free, live, interactive online sessions for kids on how to use DBT skills to deal with the emotional upheavals they may be facing. The other three days a week they meet just with parents.

The sessions take place in their living room, with the kids in attendance.

“Hi everybody! Welcome to Thursday’s edition of skills for surviving and thriving during COVID-19,” Jim said as he stood at a whiteboard, welcoming his young audience.

On this day, Jim is teaching a DBT skill called radical acceptance. That means fully accepting reality as it is, and not fighting it. It’s a skill that he thinks might be helpful these days.

“Now, that's our current reality. Is that hard at times? Does it cause us some pain?” Jim asks the kids about COVID-19. "Yes," they reply.

“And when we say it shouldn't be this way, why does it have to be this way? Does that help us with our pain or make it worse?"

"It just makes it worse," the kids reply.

The kids say they are not happy being stuck at home, away from their friends and soccer and ballet. They have to deal with online school and with fears about getting sick. “It’s just going to get keep getting worse and I’m just scared that this is what it’s going to be like for a year and a half or two years,” said Ashton, who is 11.

Jim Mazza has some advice for parents who might be beating themselves up right now. Give yourselves some grace. There is no such thing as perfect parenting, especially during this unprecedented time. And as for the kids? Lizz says validate their emotions, and let them know they will be OK.

“This is a hard time. And every day things are changing. And we're not sure exactly how long this is going to last. And we we're going to figure it out together as a family, and we're going to have our ups and downs and we're going to talk through the ups and downs together,” she said.

These lessons are still a work in progress. The technology has been a challenge. For example, last week one of their sessions was zoom-bombed.

But as they figure out how to best deliver the content, they are rushing to get it out because people really need the support now.

“As long as people keep telling us they find it helpful, we’ll keep doing it,” said Lizz.

Resources for families during the COVID-19 crisis:

Jim and Lizz Dexter-Mazza's online series for kids and parents: www.dbtinschools.com

Supporting mental wellness and family life during Covid-19 from Seattle Children's Hospital

Coping during Covid-19 facebook live panel from Seattle Children's Hospital

Connections during Covid-19 video from Forefront Suicide Prevention

Other Covid-19 mental health resources from Forefront Suicide Prevention

Washington's mental health referral service to be connected to telehealth providers

Parenting during the coronavirus: Facebook live events from the Child Mind Institute

CDC: Mental health and coping during Covid-19 website

Just for kids: A comic exploring Covid-19

Mental health resources from Mental Health America

Covid-19 resource and information guide from NAMI

Free online mindfulness exercises from Space Between, a Seattle non-profit

Supporting well-being during the Covid-19 crisis from the UW Center for Child and Family Well-Being