It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures required to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus are taking a toll on Americans’ mental health. Many overwhelmed parents have expressed concerns about how the global crisis will affect their children during this time and in the long run.
“None of us do well with uncertainty, and this crisis is a lot for our children to process. Just like us, our children are experiencing a great deal of loss of their normal lives right now,” said Genevieve von Lob, a psychologist and author of “Happy Parent, Happy Child.” She noted that kids may be struggling with many of the sudden changes in their day-to-day existence, missing their friends and their normal routines and worrying about jobs, finances or physical health.
“When children are stressed, it is often expressed in physiological changes and changes in mood and behaviors,” said Robin Gurwitch, a Duke University psychiatry professor specializing in family and child mental health. “Sadly, we don’t have a parenting manual that allows us to turn to Chapter 4 on children and pandemics to know what to look for in our children or even for ourselves.”
Kids don’t always verbalize their struggles, but anxiety, depression and other mental health issues can manifest in different ways. HuffPost spoke to Gurwitch, von Lob and other experts to learn about some of these indicators.
Read on to learn about signs that may offer parents a window into children’s mental health in this unprecedented situation. It’s understandable that kids may not be their usual selves for a short period of time, but if these behavioral or emotional changes increase in severity, persist for many weeks or interfere with your child’s everyday functions, you may want to seek professional advice.
“In general, we are all going to regress a little in our functioning during this time of major transition,” said psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “Children are going to regress more than adults, and the younger the child, the more the regression is likely to be.”
Behaviors that you thought your child had grown out of may suddenly reappear. This could include thumb-sucking, needing a special toy for comfort, bed-wetting or other potty-training issues.
“Regression is normal during periods of stress and uncertainty,” noted von Lob.
Changes In Appetite
“A child’s appetite and sleep are often the first telltale signs things are not OK,” said Natasha Daniels, a child therapist and creator of AnxiousToddlers.com. “Often a child will exhibit a sharp increase or decrease in appetite.”
Parents should keep an eye out for changes in eating habits, including loss of appetite or extra comfort eating. This is often apparent in older kids and teens.
“Sleep can also become altered,” Daniels noted. “Pay attention if your child is sleeping all day or conversely is having a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep.”
Sleep disturbances are common in difficult times, so kids may experience insomnia, nightmares, waking in the night or other irregularities.
“I advise parents to look for changes in your child’s ‘base-line’ or normal behavior,” said clinical psychologist John Mayer. The same goes for their emotional baseline, as shifts in mood can be expected.
Behaviors to be aware of include angry outbursts, sudden bouts of crying, sullenness, irritability, loss of interest in favorite activities and isolating from others.
“Look for changes in their normal temperament or mood and keep in mind that stress brings out your normal mood-set even more,” said Craig A. Knippenberg, a therapist and author of “Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success.” He noted that anxious children are likely to feel more anxious, while those with anger issues may have more frequent outbursts.
“With more anxious children, they may be asking more questions than usual, and seeking reassurance that everything is going to be okay,” von Lob explained. “Parents may also find that their children are more unsettled at bedtime and are scared to be left alone.”
Kids and teens may express worries about their own or others’ health, the future and even death. An increase in reassurance-seeking and worrying questions is often an indicator of internal anxiety, so it’s important for parents be present to offer that reassurance and a sense of stability.
“You might see an increase in clingy behavior. You want to pay attention to if your child is following you from room to room, is having a hard time if you are out of eyesight or is unable to separate at all,” Daniels explained.
Some kids may oscillate between acting very clingy to rejecting and withdrawing from others. These changes in attachment behavior can be common in difficult and uncertain situations.
“We are all going to feel a sense of loss and need to reaffirm our attachments to loved ones,” McDermott explained. “There have been millions of phone calls and messages to people we haven’t seen maybe in a long time to check if they are OK, but in reality it is to reassure ourselves that we are OK.”
On the other end of the spectrum, some kids may start to ignore the family members in their home or choose to reject the opportunity to connect with loved ones virtually.
“Some may become more withdrawn and retreat into their rooms to spend more time on technology and phones,” said von Lob.
While parents are paying attention to their family’s physical health and any worrying symptoms of COVID-19, it’s also possible for kids’ mental struggles to manifest in their bodies.
“Children may have more complaints of headaches, stomachaches, and less energy. These are real, but likely not due to any medical reason,” Gurwitch explained.
Older kids and teens may struggle to focus on educational tasks or procrastinate as they get easily distracted.
“They may experience problems with attention, concentration and new learning, which will impact tele-education,” Gurwitch said. “It may be a child forgets to complete a chore she has done for a while. It may mean that you tell him to complete a task and he can’t remember what you just said.”
“During times of crisis parents can observe and assess their children’s behavior. Are they acting out more than usual?” said Denise Daniels, a child development expert and creator of The Moodsters, a brand focused on fostering emotional intelligence in kids.
Children may start pushing boundaries, displaying higher levels of aggression, disobeying instructions or getting into more arguments with family members.
“Parents may notice an increase in moodiness, tantrums or emotional outbursts given the stress of the situation and/or in conjunction with everyone living in tighter confines,” said Stephanie Lee, interim senior director of the Autism Center and senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute.
Whatever changes in mood or behavior take place, it’s important for parents to understand that they can help nurture their children’s emotional well-being during this time.
In addition to seeking professional guidance, they can foster open dialogue with their kids, validate their feelings, correct misinformation, exercise patience, offer reassurance, establish routines and other sources of stability, facilitate virtual communication with friends and family, plan safe activities in nature and share opportunities to help others and make a difference in the world, even from the confines of home.
“While these behavior changes are common with stressful events such as COVID-19, this does not mean that there is nothing to be done,” said Gurwitch. “Parents and caregivers have important roles to play as they help their children navigate this ‘new normal.’”
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