Just as it did for adults, life changed in unimaginable ways for kids and teens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote learning, canceled activities, and lockdowns were necessary to slow the spread of the virus.
But these restrictions, along with a heightened sense of fear and uncertainty, have been causing anxiety, depression, stress, and even suicidal feelings in kids.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there's been an increase in mental health-related emergency room visits for people under age 18 during the pandemic. When researchers compared the same time periods in 2020 and 2019, visits increased by 24% for kids ages 5-11 and 31% for those ages 12-17.
These numbers are an indication of mental health emergencies. Many stressed kids have suffered over the past year, even if they didn't need a trip to the ER.
Wreaking Havoc on Mental Health
There are a number of reasons this pandemic has wreaked havoc on mental health.
Lack of Routine
As much as we may complain about routines, they give people of all ages — and especially kids — a sense of stability and security. Before the pandemic, kids knew what to expect each day between school, after-school commitments, and family activities. Now with so many things canceled and guidelines changing from day to day, it’s hard to follow a regular routine.
Kids and teens are social creatures. Many schools relied on remote or hybrid instruction. Even if kids are in school, they cannot interact with others as they used to.
Add to that the fact that kids and teens haven’t been able to hang out with their friends or be part of teams, clubs, or other groups. Many can’t visit with grandparents and other family members. This lack of social connection can have a major effect on their mental health.
Fear and Worry
Everyone is feeling the strain brought about by this pandemic. People worry about those they love getting sick from the virus. Parents have lost jobs. It may feel like things will never be normal again.
There’s a lot to be concerned about these days, and adults aren’t the only ones doing the worrying. Kids are stressed and worried, too — and they often overhear adult conversations, which can add to their concerns.
Pediatrician Debbie-Ann Shirley, MD, expresses that parents can help by allowing their children to talk about their concerns. Have open and honest conversations to understand. There are a lot of unknowns, but stressing the things we do have control over may help. These things can be:
- Outdoor activities
- Eating healthy
- Getting vaccinated, if your kids are old enough
Help Stressed Kids Cope
Life is slowly returning to some sense of normalcy as more people get vaccinated against COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean things will immediately — or ever — return to the way they were before the pandemic. And if your child or teen has been struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, they won’t just go away either. But here are a few things parents can do to help:
Stick to Routines
Although the only constant seems to be change these days, try to stick to routines as much as possible. If your kids are still learning remotely, make sure they’re following a schedule throughout the day. If activities are resuming, create new routines, so kids know what to expect. Putting activities or deadlines on a calendar may help.
Encourage Social Connection
Kids are socializing in new ways, like virtual parties or outdoor get-togethers. Although these may be getting boring by now, keep them up as much as possible. As restrictions ease, encourage children to get back to social activities they used to enjoy.
Emphasize the Future
This past year has certainly been rough, but things are getting better. Help your child focus on the good times ahead by planning an outing or vacation together. Talk about the activities they can enjoy this summer, as well as new extracurricular activities or sports that might be fun to try.
Getting Professional Help
If your child's stress is getting worse, consider professional help, with different therapy and treatment options.
Look for Signs of Trouble
For preschoolers, bedwetting, clinginess, and sleep disturbances may mean they're not coping well.
Elementary-age children may suffer from nightmares, poor concentration, and withdrawal from friends, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
And for teens, these signs may mean they're struggling:
- Sleeping and eating disturbances
- Delinquent behavior
Shirley shares that older kids may also have headaches and stomach pains.
If symptoms start to disrupt daily routines or prevent your child from engaging with others, seek a healthcare professional's help. Children who had anxiety or depression before the pandemic may be especially vulnerable now.
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