Mental health struggles to overcome
“Summer vacation is here early” is what most students thought when they first went virtual. This was what Victoria Vial thought, a middle school student, who would sit in her comfy chair, in her pajamas, and text her friends during class at the beginning. (Peterson, 2021)
After the next report card, seeing their academic slide in grades, and being faced with challenges like parents losing jobs, the passing of family members, and fear of catching & spreading the virus, students grew anxious and depressed.
Harvard University researchers who have been following 224 children ages 7 to 15 found that about two-thirds of them had clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression, and the same number had behavioral problems such as hyperactivity and inattention, between November 2020 and January 2021. (Peterson, 2021)
Between mid-March and mid-October 2020, the number of mental-health related ER visits per 100,000 total visits rose from the year-earlier period by 24%, from 782 to 972, for 5- to 11-year-olds and by 31%, from 3,098 to 4,051, for 12- to 17-year-olds, according to data from the CDC. (Peterson, 2021)
Children who are stressed and anxious are having a tough time focusing and learning in school.
How can we support our children’s mental health?
Recognizing signs of stress
Signs of stress and mental health challenges are not the same for every child, but there are common symptoms.
Toddlers and young children
- Might show backward progression in skills and developmental milestones
- Being more difficult to console and crying more easily
- Separation anxiety, seeming more withdrawn, more clingy, and less willing to explore
- Wetting the bed after they are potty trained
- Expressing needs urgently but unable to feel satisfied
- More frequent and intense tantrums
Older children and teens
- Unusual changes in mood, (i.e ongoing irritability, feelings of hopelessness, frequent conflicts with others)
- Losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed
- Appetite changes like not being hungry ever or always eating
- Struggling with memory and concentration
- Losing interesting in school work and decreased academic effort
- Increasing in risky behaviors
(Mental Health During COVID-19: Signs Your Child May Need More Support, 2021)
How you can support your child
Whether your children are showing signs of stress and mental health challenges, it’s important to note that these strategies are helpful even for keeping a mentally healthy child supported.
1. Be mindful of the information your child sees and hears
Staying home to social distance can lead to more screen time for our children. However, you can consider reducing the screen time around specifically COVID news. Constant updates on the pandemic will increase anxiety.
Additionally, there are many social media posts and news articles that are communicating inaccurate and misleading information. Take the time to discuss these posts with your child to prevent unnecessary feelings of fear and confusion. Google scholar is a good source for scholarly articles that you can use to research accurate information.
2. Develop routines and structure
Take care of the basics just as you normally would. Having structured days with regular times for waking up, meals, activities, development, family, and sleep are essential to your child’s mental well being.
Research has shown that children with structured daily routines, less screen time, less exposure to news, more exercise and time in nature have less problems with anxiety and depression. (Rosen et al., 2021)
- Plan a daily activity like a walk, which ensures physical activity & time spent outdoors
- Having the kids choose what’s for breakfast and have them help every morning
- Have a list of activities your child can choose from for family time each night
- Encourage your kids to pick up new interests like the guitar, piano, painting, etc...
3. Help your children feel in control when possible
You can help your child feel better by focusing on the things they can control right now. “Focusing on the things that we have control over – when there is a lot we don’t have control over – is important,” Gomez says. (How to support kids’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021)
Children are empowered when they know how to keep themselves safe. Teach them that regular hand washing and good hygiene can help prevent them from getting sick or spreading the virus
4. Know they often worry about family and friends more than themselves
If children hear that their aunts, uncles, grandparents, or friends are sick, they will get worried. Being worried and staying in the unknown can add to their stress load and give them more anxiety.
Encourage and help them video call those who they love whether they’re sick or not, to help them feel reassured. It is also healthy to remind them how the health care workers are working day and night to help the ones who may be sick.
5. Manage your own anxiety
Children look to their parents for queues on how to react to ambiguous situations. When they see their parents constantly anxious and fearful, then they will start to be anxious as well.
It can be difficult to control your emotions and anxiety in the moment and get caught in a train of negative hypothetical futures. However, there are ways to help yourself manage stress and not transmit anxiety to your children.
- Breathing techniques: Put one of your hands on your chest and the other on your stomach. Breathe in for 4 seconds and feel your belly expand. Then breathe out for 8 seconds while keeping your hands on your stomach and chest. Do this 2-3 times and see how you feel
- Identify what triggers your anxiety, is it when you see certain posts on social media, when you hear updates on the news? After you identify, you’ll be able to set parameters on how when when you interact with things that could trigger your anxiety
- Seek help from a therapist or clinician if other strategies don’t seem to work. They can help you develop stress management skills that will work for you specifically. After learning these techniques, you can also teach them to your children. Make sure to be in a poised and natural demeanor while you teach your children because they will pick up on anxious queues.
6. Engage in age appropriate discussions
Children usually rely on their imagination when they don’t have enough information. If you’re not educating your child with the right information, they will find answers from social media or news outlets that may worsen their fears.
You should open the floor to conversation about pandemic related topics and other stressors that may be on your child’s mind. Even if they don’t engage too much in conversation the first time around, you’re communicating with them that they can talk to you about anything.
You may even provide information in the form of videos or articles that would be age appropriate to your child.
7. Seek help from your pediatrician
If you believe your child is showing signs of mental health problems, you can visit your pediatrician. They’ll be able to conduct a mental health screening and refer you to a mental health professional appropriate for your child.
If your child is having a mental health emergency, dial 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Children who are having a mental health issues can text the word “CONNECT” to 741741. https://www.crisistextline.org/text-us/
What are some successful strategies you’ve used to help support your children? Join the conversation below.
HealthyChildren.org. 2021. Mental Health During COVID-19: Signs Your Child May Need More Support. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/COVID-19/Pages/Signs-your-Teen-May-Need-More-Support.aspx> [Accessed 31 August 2021].
Montreal Children’s Hospital. 2021. How to support kids’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. [online] Available at: <https://www.thechildren.com/health-info/conditions-and-illnesses/how-support-kids-mental-health-during-covid-19-pandemic> [Accessed 31 August 2021].
Peterson, A., 2021. Kids Head Back to School—and Bring Covid-19’s Mental-Health Scars With Them. [online] WSJ. Available at: <https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-pandemic-mental-health-schools-depression-anxiety-11630333260> [Accessed 31 August 2021].
Peterson, A., 2021. Loneliness, Anxiety and Loss: the Covid Pandemic’s Terrible Toll on Kids. [online] WSJ. Available at: <https://www.wsj.com/articles/pandemic-toll-children-mental-health-covid-school-11617969003> [Accessed 31 August 2021].
Rosen, M. L., Rodman, A. M., Kasparek, S. W., Mayes, M., Freeman, M. M., Lengua, L., … McLaughlin, K. A., PhD. (2021, March 26). Promoting youth mental health during COVID-19: A Longitudinal Study spanning pre- and post-pandemic. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/n5h8t
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