Two years of pandemic life is weighing on everyone and kids are no exception. Dr. Katya Stepanova, chair of child and adolescent psychiatry, offers some insight into kids’ and teens’ mental health in the age of COVID-19 and how adults can help.
Is it fair to say anxiety and depression are going up among kids and teens?
Absolutely. The rates of anxiety and depression in children have almost doubled over the course of the pandemic. What’s even more concerning is the rates of suicide continue to go up.
Children who had anxiety before the pandemic now have additional worries about getting sick or their loved ones getting COVID. Children who were depressed before have been on quarantine and often staying away from their friends and favorite activities. Losing that outlet and support network has been hard. School has had a lot of changes between distance learning and in-person classes, social distancing while in the school building, as well as the disagreements over masks. Vacations have been almost impossible to plan with the unknowns around new variants, isolation and quarantine. On top of all that, children are hearing their families talk about finances, vaccinations, consequences after a COVID infection and other challenging topics. Some families have even lost loved ones to COVID. All these factors have affected our children tremendously.
As parents, it’s hard to see our kids struggling. How can we help them right now?
It’s very important to create an open dialog. Children need to feel comfortable sharing and they need to feel heard by their parents. Validate their feelings and let them know it’s normal to feel overwhelmed in this situation. If they ask specific questions, do your best to answer them.
Kids thrive on routines and knowing what to expect. A lot of our routines changed during the pandemic. Try to keep things like family meals, bedtimes, etc. as consistent as possible to provide a sense of familiarity and comfort. Consistency is key to having children succeed.
Allow children to be a part of the solution. Ask for their input and opinion about what can be done better. In a time when so much feels out of their control, it can also be helpful to allow them to make some decisions when appropriate. This could be weighing in on what’s for dinner, what to do this weekend, which chores they help with, or whatever makes sense for your family.
Do reactions to the pandemic and approaches for helping vary based on kids’ ages?
Definitely. Younger children may express their feelings differently from teenagers. When it comes to expressing emotions, teens may do this through conversation or writing, while younger children may use pictures.
In general, younger children are still very parent and family focused. They’re often more willing to ask questions and share feelings. Teens are often relying more on their friends than on their parents and connect more with their peers. Remember that this is normal, and they may need a little extra space and time to open up. While they may not be ready to share yet, knowing a parent is there and ready to listen can go a long way. Of course, everyone is different and it really comes down to the unique nuances of your child and your relationship with them.
What if my child or teen doesn’t want to talk to me about how they’re feeling?
You may find that you aren’t able to provide all the answers or support your child needs – and that’s ok!
If they’re reluctant to talk with you, consider resources such as a religious leader, school counselor, favorite teacher, troop leader or other trusted adult.
It may be that they may need help from a mental health professional. Normalize the need for emotional support and encourage them to try it. They may not realize they need the help until they receive it.
Are there specific warning signs to look for that may indicate kids or teens are dealing with more than just a little sadness or disappointment?
We look for changes from what’s normal for that child. When someone is dealing with depression, they’ll often exhibit changes in sleep, appetite, social interactions and mood (increased sadness or irritability). They may become more withdrawn or isolated, or say things they wouldn’t typically say. Anxious teens may become more irritable, restless or tense. They may develop new worries or talk more about their existing fears.
Don’t underestimate what you think you’re seeing. If you have concerns, connect with your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider. They can provide an initial assessment, even via telehealth in many cases, and recommend appropriate next steps.