The Kids Are Not All Right: How the Pandemic Is Affecting Their Mental Health

At the start of the pandemic, we heard it all the time — “Kids are resilient. They’ll be OK.” But it’s been a few years and we’re still grappling with the realities of COVID-19. New variants, wearing masks, vaccination and the arguments about how relevant or irrelevant this all is.

Our kids have been stuck in the middle of all of the changes, uncertainty, frustration and fear from the beginning. So, how can we help them at a time when they need us the most? Pediatric psychologist Ethan Benore, PhD, BCB, ABPP, shares a few tips for how we can help kids cope right now.

Index

    Are children as resilient as we think they are?

    “At the beginning of the pandemic, it was a fair assessment to assume that kids are resilient and they will recover. For the most part, children are resilient and can adapt to various life stressors,” says Dr. Benore. However, kids have been up against two very chaotic and stressful years. Dr. Benore says this period of prolonged stress can take a major toll on a child.

    How to tell if your child is having a hard time with the pandemic

    We’ve felt the weight of pandemic pandemonium on our chests. Sleepless nights, endless changes to social protocols, the frustration of not being “back to normal” — you can bet that if we’re less than chipper right now, our kids are feeling the same way. The thing is, parents might take their children’s mood changes as acts of defiance. Instead, they’re small cries for help.

    Dr. Benore says to look for an overall change in your child’s behavior. It might be that your kindergartener is having a lot more tantrums or your 10-year-old seems to be acting more like a five-year-old these days.

    “If your child is having more tantrums or acting out much more than expected, they’re probably having a hard time regulating or controlling their emotions,” states Dr. Benore.

    Watch out for signs of “turtling up”

    On the other end of the spectrum, an outgoing child might be super-introverted right now.

    “They might be more quiet or reserved. This could be because the child doesn’t want to upset their parents if they know that their parents are also struggling. Or, the child just might respond to stress by ‘turtling up’ — going inside their shell and waiting until the danger passes,” he says.

    According to Dr. Benore, this behavior is a little harder to identify. He adds that it’s important for parents and teachers to pay close attention to kids who appear quieter or more withdrawn than usual. These behavioral changes could be indicators of a depressed mood.

    Magnified anxiety is another sign of rough times

    Another thing to watch out for — when your child worries about anything and everything — frequently.

    “With some kids, all of their anxieties seem magnified now. They’re worried about spending the night at other kids’ homes, worried about going to school, worried about grades. Everything that they are anxious about is magnified,” says Dr. Benore.

    Don’t dismiss behavioral changes because of your child’s age

    While it’s more common for younger children to act out and for older children to be withdrawn, behavioral changes can pivot in the opposite direction. This means a younger child could possibly be more introverted or an older child might act out more.

    Dr. Benore says if this happens, try not to dismiss what’s going on based on your child’s age. A child is not too old to have tantrums. They’re also not too young to feel stressed or be depressed.

    How suicidality factors in

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) from June 18, 2021, revealed that during 2020, the number of mental health-related emergency department visits among adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 increased by 31% in comparison to the number of visits in 2019.

    In May 2020, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts began to increase among this same age group, especially with girls. From February 21 to March 20, 2021, suspected suicide attempt emergency department visits were 50.6% higher among girls than during the same period in 2019. The amount of suspected suicide attempt visits for boys increased by 3.7%.

    Drug use has declined

    A recent news release from the National Institute on Drug Abuse revealed that the percentage of 8th, 10th and 12th graders reporting substance use dropped significantly in 2021. The 2021 decrease in vaping for both marijuana and tobacco contrasts with sharp increases in use between 2017 and 2019. The usage numbers leveled off in 2020. Students across all age groups also said they felt more bored, anxious, depressed, worried and lonely since the beginning of the pandemic.

    Check on your child often

    “It’s important that parents pay close attention to their kids during this time and talk with them about these things. Let your child know that even though they’re going through hard times, there are effective ways to cope with everything,” says Dr. Benore. “Also, parents need to make sure that they’re checking in with their child regularly and making sure that they are doing OK and using available coping resources.”

    If your child seems to be in distress and needs emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline provides free and confidential help 24/7. The number is 1-800-273-8255 or 988 in some areas. The 988 number will be available nationwide on July 16, 2022. You can also text “HOME” to 741741, which is the Crisis Text Line.

    What to do if your child has a hard time opening up

    If your child is struggling to talk to you, don’t take it personally. If they’re worried about everything, they’re probably worried about how you might react to them having a rough time, too. But if you’ve tried everything and they still won’t talk, it’s time to pull in a trusted adult.

    “A child may struggle with opening up to someone if they’re worried about how the other person is going to respond. For that reason, it’s helpful for a child to have a trusted adult that they can open up to. That person could be the other parent, a teacher or counselor at school, a neighbor or another relative. A trusted adult can also be a therapist or another professional. But it’s important that children and teens have a trusted person to go to,” Dr. Benore explains. 

    If you end up being that trusted adult, be clear about your role.

    “Any time a teen or younger child wants to discuss something with you, it’s important that you clarify what your role is. Let them know that you’re there to validate and support them. Also, be very open about what is going to be shared with their parents,” notes Dr. Benore.

    How to help your child feel safe right now

    Hearing about illness and death or seeing loved ones struggle with COVID-19 can be overwhelming for a kid. Dr. Benore shares four things that parents can do to help their children feel safe.

    Create a sense of stability and security

    “Create a routine. That includes what you play on the radio and TV, and your child’s activities. Having a stable environment, regular schedule and even reliable people in your child’s life can help them feel safe. So, even though the world might be struggling, you’ve got this mini world, this microcosm, which seems to be holding together quite well.”

    Facilitate coping

    “Create opportunities for your child to put their feelings out there and to just be heard. Let your child feel what they feel. Don’t tell them that they shouldn’t feel scared or sad. Instead, tell them you understand and encourage them to engage in activities that might help them feel better. However, if you’re not sure what to do, there are a host of online resources to help children cope with the pandemic.”

    Help them feel hopeful

    “This is a difficult time, but we’ve gone through difficult times before as families and as a nation. We’ll get through this. Parents have not experienced a national or global crisis like the pandemic before, so we struggle with accepting and communicating that we can survive this. Our kids also need to understand that they’ll get through this. If you create some stability, if you facilitate some coping and if you instill a sense of hope, that will help your child be more resilient.”

    Don’t forget self-care

    “Yes, self-care is important. Just make sure your child knows that you’re doing it. If self-care for you is running, tell your child, ‘I’m going for a jog because it helps me feel better.’ Or, if you decide to play a game with your child you can say, ‘I like playing with you because it helps me feel better when I’m upset.’ Parents who are actively coping can help their kids develop essential coping skills. Take care of yourself and use that as a teachable moment for your child as well.”

    When to get help from a mental health professional

    Has your child has been displaying behavioral changes for weeks? Then there’s your answer. Now’s the time to reach out to your healthcare provider or mental health professional.

    “If your child experienced an injury while playing outside and was limping, if they didn’t improve after a week or so, you’d take them to the doctor to get checked out. Likewise, if your child has a change in emotions and behaviors and it lasts for more than two weeks, you should reach out for help,” says Dr. Benore.

    If you notice that the entire family is struggling, he adds that it doesn’t hurt to try family therapy sessions.

    “If you all have been arguing for weeks and you haven’t done anything fun recently as a family, something’s going on. Talk to a professional to get some insight about this,” Dr. Benore stresses. “And remember, family therapy is not about blaming. It’s not about who’s wrong or who messed up. It’s about getting a consultation for how your family can be better.”

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