At the start of the pandemic, we heard it all the time: “Children are resilient. They will be fine. But it’s been a few years and we’re still grappling with the realities of COVID-19. New variants, the wearing of masks, vaccinations and arguments about whether or not all of this is relevant.
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Our children have been stuck in the midst of all the change, uncertainty, frustration and fear from the start. So how can we help them at a time when they need us the most? Pediatric psychologist Ethan Benore, PhD, BCB, ABPPshares some tips on how we can help children cope right now.
Are children as resilient as we think?
“At the start of the pandemic, it was a fair assessment to assume that children are resilient and will recover. For the most part, children are resilient and can adapt to various life stressors,” says Dr. Benore. However, the children lived through two very chaotic and stressful years. Dr. Benore says this period of prolonged stress can have a significant impact on a child.
How to know if your child is going through a difficult time with the pandemic
We felt the weight of pandemic pandemonium on our chests. Sleepless nights, endless shifts in social protocols, frustration at not being “back to normal” — you can bet if we’re less than shredded right now, our kids feel the same way. The thing is, parents might view their children’s mood swings as acts of defiance. Instead, they are small pleas for help.
Dr. Benore advises looking for an overall change in your child’s behavior. Your kindergartner might have 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 a lot more than expected, they’re probably having trouble regulating or controlling their emotions,” says Dr. Benore.
Beware of “turtling up” signs
On the other end of the spectrum, an extroverted child might be super introverted right now.
“They might be more quiet or reserved. This may be because the child does not want to upset his parents if he knows that his parents are also having difficulties. Or, the child could simply react to stress by ‘rolling over’ — going into their shell and waiting for the danger to pass,” he says.
According to Dr. Benore, this behavior is a little more difficult to identify. He adds that it’s important for parents and teachers to pay special attention to children who seem calmer or more withdrawn than usual. These behavioral changes could be indicators of a depressed mood.
Amplified anxiety is another sign of tough times
Another thing to watch out for – when your child worries about anything and everything – frequently.
“With some kids, all their anxieties seem amplified now. They’re worried about sleeping over with other kids, worried about going to school, worried about grades. Everything that worries them is amplified. “, explains Dr. Benore.
Don’t dismiss behavior changes because of your child’s age
While it’s more common for young children to act out and older children to be withdrawn, changes in behavior can pivot in the opposite direction. This means that a younger child might be more introverted or an older child might be more action-oriented.
Dr. Benore says if this happens, try not to dismiss what is happening based on your child’s age. A child is not too old to have temper tantrums. They are also not too young to feel stressed or depressed.
How suicidal factors
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) from June 18, 2021 revealed that in 2020, the number of mental health-related emergency room visits among teenagers aged 12 to 17 increased by 31% compared to the number of visits in 2019.
In May 2020, emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts began to increase in this same age group, particularly among girls. From February 21 to March 20, 2021, emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts were 50.6% higher among girls than during the same period in 2019. The number of suspected suicide attempt visits among boys increased by 3.7%.
Drug use has decreased
A recent press release from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that the percentage of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders reporting substance use decreased significantly in 2021. The decrease in vaping in 2021 for marijuana and tobacco contrasts with a sharp increase in consumption between 2017 and 2019. Usage figures stabilized in 2020. Students of all age groups also reported feeling more bored, anxious, depressed, worried and lonely since the start of the pandemic.
Check on your child often
“It’s important for parents to pay close attention to their children during this time and talk to them about these things. Let your child know that even if they are going through difficult times, there are effective ways to cope with everything,” says Dr. Benore. “Additionally, parents need to ensure that they are regularly checking in on their child and making sure they are doing well and using the coping resources available.”
If your child seems to be in distress and needs emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline provides free, confidential help 24/7. The number is 1-800-273-8255 or 988 in some areas. The number 988 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 trouble opening up
If your child has trouble talking to you, don’t take it personally. If they’re worried about everything, they’re probably also worried about how you might react if they’re going through a tough time. But if you’ve tried everything and they still won’t talk, it’s time to talk to a trusted adult.
“A child may find it difficult to open up to someone if they are worried about the other person’s reaction. For this reason, it helps for a child to have a trusted adult they can open up to. This person can be the other parent, a teacher or counselor at school, a neighbor or another parent. A trusted adult can also be a therapist or other professional. But it is important for children and adolescents to have someone they can trust,” says Dr Benore.
If you end up being that trusted adult, be clear about your role.
“Any time a teenager or young child wants to discuss something with you, it’s important that you clarify your role. Let them know that you are 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 child. Dr. Benore shares four things parents can do to help their children feel safe.
Create a sense of stability and security
“Create a routine. This includes what you listen to on the radio and television, as well as your child’s activities. Having a stable environment, a regular schedule, and even reliable people in your child’s life can help them feel safe. So even though the world may be in trouble, you have this mini-world, this microcosm, which seems to be holding up pretty well.
“Create opportunities for your child to express their feelings and just be heard. Let your child feel what he feels. Don’t tell them they shouldn’t be scared or sad. Instead, let them know you understand and encourage them to participate in activities that might help them feel better. However, if you don’t know what to do, there are plenty of Online resources to help children cope with the pandemic.
Help them keep hope
“It’s a tough time, but we’ve been through tough times before as families and as a nation. We’ll get through this. Parents have never experienced a national or global crisis like the pandemic before, we have so it’s hard to accept and communicate that we can survive this. Our children also need to understand that they will get through this. If you create some stability, facilitate some adjustment and instill a sense of hope , it will help your child to be more resilient.
Don’t forget about personal care
“Yes, self-care is important. Just make sure your child knows you are doing it. If self-care for you involves running, tell your child, “I’m going to jog because it makes 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 children develop essential coping skills. Take care of yourself and use this as a teachable moment for your child as well.
When to seek help from a mental health professional
Has your child been showing behavioral changes for weeks? Then there is your answer. Now is the time to contact your healthcare provider or mental health professional.
“If your child got hurt while playing outside and he was limping, if he hasn’t gotten better after about a week, you take him to the doctor for a checkup. Likewise, if your child has a change in emotions and behaviors and it lasts longer than two weeks, you should seek help,” says Dr. Benore.
If you notice that the whole family is struggling, he adds that it doesn’t hurt to try family therapy sessions.
“If you’ve all been arguing for weeks and haven’t done anything fun with your family lately, there’s something going on. Speak to a professional to find out more about it,” Dr. Benore points out. “And remember, family therapy isn’t about blaming. It’s not about finding out who’s wrong or who screwed up. It’s about getting a consultation to find out how your family can get better.