Thanks to wider availability of vaccines and declining local rates of COVID-19, we’ve entered a new period in the pandemic. Parts of life are returning to what families were used to before coronavirus temporarily disrupted so much. As we increasingly return to obligations and pleasure outside of the home, it’s important to be aware that youth and adults alike will be learning to cope with emotions and feelings related to the experiences of the past year.
On the Pulse spoke with Dr. Yolanda Evans, an adolescent medicine physician at Seattle Children’s, about what kids and teens have experienced and how best to support them through this new period of time.
“We have seen an increase in reports of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders among teens,” Evans said. “For many, the coping strategies they would’ve used in times of stress, like hanging out with friends or participating in after school activities, or even socializing at school, were taken away with physical distancing.”
Expect a range of feelings
While some kids thrived with more isolation and remote learning, many became disengaged, uninspired and lonely. Nearly everyone feels they missed out on important shared celebrations and milestones they’d been anticipating. Some are grieving the loss of a loved one, and some are dealing with financial impacts to their family. Kids may feel anger, sadness, distrust, fear, or a combination of those emotions due to the events of the past year. Some kids and teens are entering this new phase with pent up energy and an excitement and eagerness to be on the go, but others feel exhausted from so much stress and loneliness.
Validate and model
Help your child know that all feelings are valid, that their feelings can change from day to day, and even from minute to minute. They’ve been through a lot, while at the same time changing through normal growth and development. It’s OK to feel unsettled.
Be open about your own emotions and let your child see that you are adjusting to the changing world around you as well. When you show emotions, name your feelings and use healthy ways to cope, you set an example for your child to process their feelings.
Ease back into routines
Pandemic life caused many families to shake up their rules and routines. Some examples include allowing increased screen time, adopting later bedtimes, and eating and drinking in less healthy ways than usual. Try to reestablish daily routines that support healthy habits. Include regular sleep and wake times, family meals, and clear responsibilities and consequences. Adults should participate in and model the behaviors too (consistent sleep and wake times, eating regular meals, incorporating movement into your day) as we all attempt to shift back into more regular routines. Kids of all ages benefit from knowing what to expect and depend on. Teens may be inclined to “make up for lost time” by engaging in more risk-taking behaviors, so it’s a good time to remind them of your values and expectations.
Support reentry to more rigorous academics, and try not to pressure your child too much. The change from remote schooling, which has included relaxed grading and attendance policies, back to the old way is a lot for kids to adjust to. Help them build their confidence as learners and remind them to ask questions and speak up if they need help.
On the social front, consider setting up playdates for little ones to work on social skills. Create a drop-off routine for daycare that prevents separation anxiety from prolonging a goodbye. If your older child is feeling social anxiety, help them set goals to practice doing things that make them nervous. Encourage them to work through, rather than avoid, situations that cause them to worry more than the situation calls for.
Foster resilience and praise efforts
As you parent through this part of the pandemic, continue to foster resilience in yourself and your child. Focus on the things that you can control: set goals, reach out to others, practice gratitude and take time to simply breathe deeply. Give yourself and your child grace.
Offer specific and meaningful praise when you see your child or teen working through tough times. For example, praise their determination when they struggle with an assignment, get frustrated, take a break and come back to it again later. Tell them that you like how they made a new friend on the playground, even though they were nervous to say hello at first.
“With my own kids, we end the day with three gratitudes or things we enjoyed about the day,” Evans said. “It helps to reflect on what has gone well, what goals we’ve accomplished, and ensures that we are all recognizing the strengths we bring to the family.”
Schedule missed healthcare visits
Physical health and mental health are intertwined, so support your child’s overall wellness by scheduling check-ups and dental visits that you may have missed. Be sure your child’s immunizations are current and that they’re getting regular screening for behavioral health issues and developmental milestones.
Keep listening, observing, and checking in
The best thing you can do during this time is to keep checking in on your child or teen. Ask questions, listen more than you talk, and make time and space to be together. It’s amazing what you can learn about your child’s thoughts, worries, and wins while you’re doing everyday things like driving to school or cleaning up after dinner.
Know the signs of a mental health problem
Mental health problems are common in children and teens. If your child develops a problem, know it’s not you or your child’s fault. Be alert to early signs, including feeling very sad or withdrawn for two or more weeks; severe mood swings; changes in eating or sleeping habits; or sudden, overwhelming fear for no reason. If your child is showing one or more of these signs, talk to their doctor right away. It’s best to notice a problem early on and get the right treatment to support your child, just as you would for a broken bone. Effective help is available and can make an important difference in helping your child get back on track with healthy development and life.
“If you are concerned about your child or teen, don’t delay reaching out for help,” Evans said. “Let them know you’re concerned and that you’re going to support them. Talk to their doctor and seek mental health support early.”
- Mental Health Resource Hub
- Washington’s Mental Health Referral Service for Children and Teens
- Supporting Mental Wellness and Family Life During COVID-19
- Teen Link
For help during a crisis:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741