“I just want the pandemic to be over,” my 6-year-old said sadly as we pulled into our parking space after her gymnastics class.
I glanced in my rearview mirror.
Masks had been optional in school for the past month. This gymnastics class was the first to go maskless since 2020.
In my mind, things were getting back to normal.
“I feel like everything was happy before,” she continued. “And now it’s not. I just want things to be happy again.”
My heart twisted.
She’s a happy-go-lucky kid, and our pandemic experience has been mild. I’ve been working remotely, and she’s been at an in-person school since September 2020. No one we love has passed away. We’ve been lucky.
Even so, as she talked about the friends who had moved away in the past year and the pre-K teacher she still missed, I realized just how much change she had gone through.
While masks were coming off and extracurriculars were back on, she was still mourning the life that had stopped in March 2020.
She’s not the only one.
Kids of all ages are experiencing mental health symptoms, even ones who may have had an “easy” time during the pandemic so far.
On social media, on the playground, and in conversations among peers, my parent friends and I come back to the question: How are our kids actually doing as a result of all this change, uncertainty, and loss?
Let’s see what the research says.
In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association issued a joint statement declaring a national state of emergency in children’s mental health and calling on child advocates to make changes.
That same month, UNICEF warned in its flagship report that children and young people could be feeling the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health for years to come.
In March 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data that found 44 percent of high school students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the past year.
Mental health challenges continue
“You expect that as the world moves forward, things are getting better, and normalcy seems to be returning on so many fronts that our kids should just be moving with it and … returning to normal, too,” says Fatima Watt, PsyD, director of behavioral health sciences at Franciscan Children’s in Brighton, Massachussetts.
For many, this hasn’t been the case — including adults.
“Humans are much more complicated than that,” says Watt. “I’ve seen more grownups having a harder time now than ever before in the pandemic.”
Watt explains that even “positive” changes, like dropping mask requirements or adding extracurriculars, can seem overwhelming to both adults and kids.
“Even good excitement can bring anxiety and stress,” she says.
Clinical psychologist at Child Mind Institute, Janine Domingues, PhD, adds that many children had mental health challenges before the pandemic.
“I often tell parents [that] 1 in 5 kids go on to develop a psychiatric disorder before they’re 18,” she says. “So mental health was certainly something that we considered … even before the pandemic.”
Domingues notes that the pandemic may have worsened issues in children who were already vulnerable.
For instance, some children may have had a hard time with remote schooling or deviation from routine. This change could have contributed to increased symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Other kids, regardless of whether they grappled with mental health challenges before, may have enjoyed the slower pace of pandemic life and are now having a hard time with re-entry.
“Even though things are back to normal, or getting to that place, a transition back might be … difficult for kids,” Domingues says.
Recent global issues may have added even more stress.
“During the pandemic, young people also experienced other challenges that may have affected their mental and emotional well-being,” said Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy in a 2021 report.
Murthy noted factors like:
police violence against Black Americans
COVID-19-related violence against Asian Americans
an increasingly polarized political dialogue
growing concerns about climate change
emotionally charged misinformation
That’s a lot for anyone to deal with, especially kids.
Signs to look for
So, how can you tell whether your child is having a “normal” amount of anxiety or whether they need additional support?
One benchmark, experts say, is assessing how much your child’s mood or behavior changes are impacting their functioning at school, at home, and with friends.
Domingues says to look for signs that last more than a few weeks, occur every day, or are impacting your child’s level of engagement in normal activities.
“That’s usually the time when I encourage parents to reach out to either their pediatrician or get a referral to a mental health professional,” she says. “This can help your child get the support needed to get back on track.”
An online screening tool like the one developed by Mental Health America can be helpful in assessing your child’s current mood and providing additional points of concern to bring up to a pediatrician.
Your parental sixth sense can guide you too.
“I strongly believe that parents are the experts on their children,” says Helen Egger, MD, chief medical and scientific officer of digital kids’ mental health platform Little Otter. “When parents sense something is ‘off’ or wrong, they’re usually right.”
Some things to look out for include:
change in sleep routine
change in eating habits
change in activity level
withdrawal from hobbies that used to interest them
meltdowns and temper tantrums
inability to self-soothe
worry or anxiety
increased talk about death
negative self-talk, like, “I’m ugly, I hate myself, I’m stupid”
behavior that’s negatively impacting the family or friendships
decline in school performance
How to help your child cope
Though it may feel daunting, there are a number of strategies you can use to help your child navigate difficult times.
creating a safe space to talk about feelings
reminding them they’re resilient
teaching them to embrace what they can control
acknowledging their losses
validating their feelings
checking in regularly
Create safe space to talk about feelings
It can be hard to know just what to say when it comes to talking to your kids about mental health, butit’s an important conversation to have.
“Our children do want to know that it’s OK to talk about these things,” says Watt. “As a culture, we need to be shifting the way that we think and opening up the door so that the next generation feels much more comfortable talking about mental health.”
The pandemic may have started to open those doors.
A 2021 report from the Child Mind Institute found that 42 percent of teens say the pandemic has increased the number of conversations they have around mental health. This trend was particularly significant among Hispanic and Black teenagers, the report found.
Watt suggests that you bring it up with them and ask how they’re feeling, just as you would if you noticed they were physically hurt or ill.
“If your child looked like they had a stomach ache … you would say, ‘You look like your stomach hurts, are you OK?” she says. “We shouldn’t think about mental health any differently than we think about physical health.”
Make ‘resiliency’ a household word
Another thing to note: Kids (and grownups) can be resilient.
The same Child Mind Institute report found that 67 percent of teens surveyed agreed with the statement, “I am hopeful that I will adapt and rebound from the challenges of the pandemic.”
This was true even among teens who believed that their mental health had worsened during the pandemic. The study authors suggest this may be illustrative of “the mental health immune system,” an innate resilience in our brains to be able to bounce back.
Embrace what you can control
Domingues believes that as kids adapt, it can be helpful to give them the space to control what they can.
“The pandemic made all of us feel a loss of control,” she says. “Parents can help ground kids by reminding them what they do have control over in their day-to-day.”
That might be decisions as simple as what to wear today, or what you’re going to play with.
“This can give [kids] agency around the things they can enjoy in the here and now,” Domingues adds.
Acknowledge loss, validate feelings
Part of enjoying the here and now is reflecting on what all of us may have lost in the past 24 months, even if the losses may seem minor compared to others.
“It’s OK to feel sad [that] things are different or you’re missing things,” Domingues says, adding that this goes for parents and kids alike.
She says there’s room to hold both and validate that it’s normal to feel this way. At the same time, you can start to find small ways to feel OK about now.
Keep checking in
Since “Let’s talk” is rarely a successful opening line for teenagers, Watt says to regularly initiate check-ins with your kids.
At the same time, give them space to come to you.
“It’s a dance of not wanting to pressure or force them to open up,” she says. “You want to let them know that you’re noticing things and that you’re available.”
This may mean trying a few different inroads to connection or identifying another trusted adult your child can relate to.
“Sometimes kids have a hard time opening up to parents, but if we give opportunities to talk and share with other trusted adults in their life and their community, that can also be helpful,” Watt says.
How to get mental health support for your child
Many experts agree that a checkup with your child’s pediatrician is a good first line of defense. Not only can they rule out any potential medical causes, but they may have a robust referral list within the community.
“They can also help you put [your child’s symptoms] into context to say, ‘This is typical, I’m not so worried. Here are some strategies that can help,’” Watt says. “Or actually, ‘These behaviors are of concern. Here’s what we can do.’”
You may also find support resources from:
local community and cultural centers
school guidance counselors
in-person or online support groups
in-person or online therapy
There are multiple telehealth treatment options for children and families, as well as digital mental health startups aimed at children and teens.
For teens, finding like-minded peers may also be beneficial.
“Adolescence is a special time where teenagers think the world revolves [around] them,” Watt says. “That’s developmentally appropriate, but that heightens their level of self-consciousness.”
She suggests helping them understand that they’re not alone in that feeling by pointing out that lots of teenagers are feeling that way. Support groups can be great for this.
For instance, Mental Health America offers a directory of peer support programs organized by mental health condition.
It’s been a tough few years for kids all over the world.
No matter what’s going on in the news cycle or even in your own home, help is out there.
Knowing the signs to look for, being armed with coping strategies, and knowing where to go when you need extra support can help set you and your family up to navigate even the most difficult times.
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