Mental Health During COVID-19: Signs Your Child May Need More Support
Article adapted from Healthychildren.org
The stress, fear, grief, isolation and uncertainty created by COVID-19 pandemic can wear anyone down, but many children and teens have had an especially tough time coping emotionally. As more people get COVID-19 vaccines, there is growing hope that pressures of the pandemic will ease. But the struggles and losses of the past year will likely continue to affect families for some time to come. Continue to check in with your child often and watch and listen for signs they are struggling. And remember that your pediatrician is here to help.
How is your child coping during COVID-19? Invite your child to talk about how they are feeling. Feeling depressed, hopeless, anxious, and angry may be signs they could benefit from more support during this difficult time. Keep in mind that adolescents and young adults may try to hide their struggles because of fear, shame, or a sense of responsibility to avoid burdening others. Younger children may not know how to talk about these feelings but may show changes in their behavior or development. Recognizing signs of stress in your child. Signs of stress and mental health challenges are not the same for every child or teen, but there are some common symptoms.
Infants, toddlers and young children...may show backward progress in skills and developmental milestones. They may also have increased problems with:
fussiness and irritability, startling and crying more easily, and more difficult to console.
falling asleep and waking up more during the night.
feeding issues such as frantic nippling, more reflux, constipation or loose stools, or new complaints of stomach pain.
separation anxiety, seeming more clingy, withdrawn, or hesitant to explore.
hitting, frustration, biting, and more frequent or intense tantrums.
bedwetting after they're potty trained.
urgently expressed needs while seemingly unable to feel satisfied.
conflict and aggression or themes like illness or death during play.
Older children and adolescents...may show signs of distress with symptoms such as:
changes in mood that are not usual for your child, such as ongoing irritability, feelings of hopelessness or rage, and frequent conflicts with friends and family.
changes in behavior, such as stepping back from personal relationships. If your ordinarily outgoing teen shows little interest in texting or video chatting with their friends, for example, this might be cause for concern.
a loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed. Did your music-loving child suddenly stop wanting to practice guitar, for example? Did your aspiring chef lose all interest in cooking and baking?
a hard time falling or staying asleep, or starting to sleep all the time.
changes in appetite, weight or eating patterns, such as never being hungry or eating all the time.
problems with memory, thinking, or concentration.
less interest in schoolwork and drop in academic effort.
changes in appearance, such as lack of basic personal hygiene (within reason, since many are doing slightly less grooming during this time at home).
an increase in risky or reckless behaviors, such as using drugs or alcohol.
thoughts about death or suicide, or talking about it (see “A word about suicide risk," below).
How a Professional can help Staying in touch with your pediatrician is more important than ever during the pandemic. If you have any concerns, ask your pediatrician's office about checking on your child's social and emotional health. It's important to offer your teen some privacy to talk with the pediatrician during the visit to ensure they have the chance to speak as openly as possible.
Involving a mental health professional is also advisable if your child is struggling with mental health issues and stress. Many therapists are able to work virtually or in person with your child.
Supporting Your Child Your pediatrician can give you guidance on ways to best support your child and help them build resilience. Some children or adolescents may need more time and space to express their feelings. Some may do better with gradual conversations and other activities besides talking, such as painting or drawing to express themselves and manage stress. Others might be more comfortable with direct conversations or activities. They may need to talk to a trusted adult about how to keep up social connections safely, or their feelings of boredom, loss, and even guilt if they have sometimes not kept up safe physical distancing. Find more ways to help your child cope with stress and build resilience in Parenting in a Pandemic: Tips to Help Keep the Calm at Home.
Suicide Risk Rates of suicide for both adolescents and adults increase during times of high stress. In addition to screening for depression, your pediatrician can screen for suicide risk. Remember, not everyone who considers suicide will talk about it, and not everyone who talks about suicide will act on their words. However, any talk about suicide should be taken seriously. If you are worried about your child, it is critical to make your home safe by removing weapons and ammunition from the house and securing medications in a locked cabinet. Seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or texting the Crisis Text Line by texting 'TALK' to 741741. Reserve 911 for situations where self-harming actions are happening or are about to happen. In a non-crisis situation, talk with your pediatrician about any concerns you have about your child's mental health.
Self-care and Setting the Tone Parents set the tone in the household. Expressing extreme doom or fear can affect your children. It can be challenging to stay positive, especially if you're struggling with your own stress. But try to stay positive and relay consistent messages that a brighter future lies ahead. It helps to set aside time to take care of yourself when possible, and seek the support you may need for your own mental health. Practicing mindfulness, focusing on the present moment, yoga or stretching can help the entire family build coping skills. Build in down time for the whole family to connect and relax, enjoying a nap, movie time or simply spending time together. Remember Keep lines of communication open between you and your child, and don't hesitate to talk with your pediatrician about ways to help maintain your family's mental health during this difficult time.