Our children and teenagers are suffering the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the civil unrest that has shaken our nation, just like we are. Even if they and their immediate families have stayed healthy, these crises have taken a toll on young people. From the outrage over the murders of countless unarmed Black people at the hands of the police and the racism it put on display, to the sadness of missing important life milestones, and the anxiety they surely feel from all of the bad news out there, our youth need our support more than ever.
It’s natural that many of our children are sad and grieving, but increasingly, health experts worry about long-term mental health issues. While it’s true that children are often tougher, smarter, and more resilient than we give them credit for, we need to take their mental health seriously. Here are a few ways you can support your children.
Let Your Kids Be Sad and Grieve
As a parent, it’s natural that you want to protect your child from pain. However, denying them or trying to distract them from their sadness is actually doing them a big disservice. According to AltaMed’s Director of Behavioral Health, Sandra Pisano, PsyD, this can make your child less resilient, which means they may have a harder time bouncing back from future sadness and disappointment. To help your child develop this important resiliency, help them participate in creative and playful activities. “Creativity and play stimulate the “pleasure” and “calming” parts of the brain, which in turn prevents or reduces sad and fearful reactions,” Dr. Pisano says. You might consider challenging your child to draw or write a story about what they’re feeling. This will stimulate their creativity while allowing them to honestly process their thoughts.
Communicate Honestly but Optimistically
Even if your first instinct is to protect your kids from the harsh realities of current events, this could backfire. To some degree, your kids know what’s going on – and if they aren’t getting the full picture, they are probably imagining that things are much worse than they really are.
Communicate with them honestly and frequently, including discussions about the impact of recent events, especially if your family or friends have been directly affected. Be straightforward and include reasons for optimism, too – for example, point to how individuals and communities across the country have pulled together to offer support for one another during these uncertain times.
Introduce Them to Mindfulness
Maybe you’ve heard about mindfulness at your job or from a social media influencer. It’s the practice of being present: slowing down, doing one thing at a time, and focusing on living in each moment.
Mindfulness can help kids deal with anxiety and negative emotions, but it also has many other positive benefits, such as helping them make better decisions and improving their self-esteem. And, if they learn mindfulness at an early age, they can use it for the rest of their lives.
If you’re new to the concept, there’s a simple exercise you both can practice together. When you or your child find yourself in a stressful or uncomfortable situation, just STOP:
S: Stop. Whatever you’re doing, take a time-out.
T: Take a breath. As you breathe, tune everything out but the feeling of pulling air into your body.
O: Observe. Notice what is happening, and your thoughts and feelings, too.
P: Proceed. Whatever you do next, think about what you’ve experienced in this moment.
Some people who practice mindfulness combine it with meditation, but you don’t have to – and neither do your kids. The best way to teach your kids mindfulness is to practice it yourself, and then together.
Limit Their Intake of News
Thanks to social media and being home all the time, we’re all seeing more news than ever – and many of us are finding that it’s terrible for our mental health.
An easy way to limit the intake of news is by limiting device usage and screen time. Think about creating device-free zones or times – for example, no devices at the dinner table or an hour before bedtime. You can also make time for your family to watch or read the news then talk about it. Try to speak about the news honestly, while also emphasizing any positive aspects, and discuss what you can do to keep your family safe, healthy, and connected to loved ones during this time.
Keep Providing a Healthy Environment
One of the best ways to support your child is by continuing to maintain a nurturing, stable environment.
⦁ Make sure you create structure and routine in their daily lives.
⦁ Even if you want to spoil them or give in to requests for fast food, continue to cook healthy, balanced meals – good nutrition can make a big difference in their moods (as well as your own).
⦁ Keeping them healthy means keeping them on their vaccine schedule. This is more important than ever since many children have missed their shots, which could put your child at risk when schools start to open up.
⦁ Kids require more sleep than we do – even teenagers require 8-9 hours a night, so help them get a good night’s sleep.
Recognize the Signs that Something’s Not Right
We all know kids – especially teenagers – can be moody. However, look out for these clear signs that there could be a bigger problem.
⦁ Noticeable changes in personality and temperament
⦁ Fatigue or claiming to be tired all the time
⦁ Anger or acting out – children often mask their depression with aggressive behavior
⦁ Socially withdrawn
⦁ Difficulty thinking or concentrating
⦁ Expressing feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
⦁ Talk of self-harm or suicide
Get Them Help If They Need It
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are real, and they can have serious consequences for children if left untreated. If you believe something is wrong, talk to your pediatrician. They may be able to give you additional guidance or refer you to a Behavioral Health specialist.
Our pediatricians are taking appointments now – your child may be able to have a virtual visit, but in-person visits are required for immunizations. Your and your child’s mental health matters to us, and we want to help!