Family Counseling Insights brought to you by California Psychotherapeutic Resources, Inc.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last two years, it’s that kids just may be as stressed out as their parents. Working from home, masking indoors, a switch to Zoom meetings and so many other disruptions of daily life have caused adults any number of headaches, literally and figuratively, along with symptoms of everything from depression to anxiety. Kids have dealt with many of the same issues — from masking to Zoom schooling — but there’s an added twist to their situation: they generally do not have the life experience to understand why they’re feeling anxious, and may not even be able to identify the feeling of anxiety.
Writing for NPR.org, Sequoia Carrillo says, “While the pandemic caused widespread disruption to learning, one of the biggest concerns, for students of all ages, has been how it has affected their mental health. High numbers of teenagers have reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless.”
News reports have well documented the negative ways some adults are coping with the added stress, including an increase in alcohol consumption. But kids are reacting differently, sometimes becoming withdrawn and depressed.
That’s why it’s important for parents to keep an eye on their kids as they return to school this fall. It may be easy to miss signs of your child struggling to readjust to activities that are part of getting somewhat back to normal.
Carrillo cites mental health experts who give the following advice for parents.
“Be proactive” With kids a fear of the unknown is often the root of their anxiety. You can help avoid general anxiousness by prepping them for new situations, especially if they’re entering a new school. That means visiting their school ahead of opening day, if possible. “If you don’t have access to the actual school grounds early, looking at a map in ‘street view’ on your phone or computer can help,” writes Carrillo. “Get them used to talking about class or recess. Ask them what they want to eat for lunch.” Anything you can do to help them visualize their upcoming day helps.
“Ask about the good and the bad” This is a conversation that’s more appropriate for older kids, those in junior high and certainly high school. At this age, kids are more aware of their feelings than parents may give them credit for. With that said, it’s important to keep the conversation non-judgmental. One excellent way to do this is to keep in the mind the difference between “what” and why.” What are you having any difficulty with is not judgmental. Why are you having trouble most certainly is.
“Keep an eye on changing behavior” This is another area where there’s quite a difference depending on your child’s age. Younger children might show an increase in irritability at the beginning of the school year. It’s up to the parent to figure out if their child is upset at being challenged, or if there’s an underlying source of anxiety showing up as irritability. The first step is to probe about any challenges they’re having. For older kids, especially those going away to college. Changing sleep patterns, weight gain and more can be a normal part of adjusting to life away from home — but they also may signal major issues. Again, honest, non-judgmental conversation is the starting point.
“It’s not just COVID” Unfortunately, the increase in kids’ mental health issues didn’t begin with the start of the pandemic. The trendline shows the increase began several years ago and the pandemic supercharged it. So, if your child is showing signs of a problem, don’t automatically blame it on lockdowns and masking. In particular, take note if your kid has lost interest in activities or sports they once loved — that’s a real red flag.
“Lend a hand” Parents are much more likely to be aware that a symptom is actually beneficial in pointing toward an underlying problem. Children might think the symptom is the problem. Parents can help by letting their children know help is available. Here’s a link to a variety of helpful resources. Or see Carrillo’s NPR article for links to additional resources.