How to Take Care of Your Child’s Mental Health Right Now
Among the many unanswered questions are what impact this pandemic will have on children’s mental health. A recent article published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics documents an increase in anxiety and depression in isolated children in China. While it’s still too early to say for sure what the exact toll will be, according to some reports, many parents report increased signs of anxiety, stress and depression in their children.
So, what actions can parents take right now to help their children cope with this crisis in a healthy way? We turned to experts for help.
Children remember actions more than words
“Kids will feel safer when their parents look calm and positive,” says Sarah Keith Birman , assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition, as Birman notes, being calm and positive also helps parents cope better.
Amy Smith, occupational therapist and director of global business development at Enable My Child , agrees. “Kids will see how you react and process it more than what you actually say,” Smith says. As she notes, children tend to remember the behavior of their parents, rather than their specific words. If the parent is really stressed, the worry is otherwise processing, then there is something that the child will remember more than what they said.
When it comes to communicating with children, stay calm and positive to help them deal with the situation. This does not mean diminishing the risk of what is happening, but it does mean that the information should be presented in a way that does not cause undue anxiety in the child.
One way to do this is to introduce children to productive safety practices, such as washing their hands and keeping a six-foot distance, and describing other protective measures they can take. It also helps explain why these precautions are important.
“There must be a reason for these new rules,” Smith says.
Order is important
One of the most important things that parents can do to help their children is to accustom themselves to a daily routine. Examples include getting up at the same time, setting regular meal times, and scheduling school and work. The more predictable your schedule is, the better. It also helps to include daily physical activity and spending some time outdoors as both of these methods are beneficial for mental health.
“[This] could mean maintaining [your] procedures before COVID or creating new ones, but having some predictability is good for kids,” says Birman. As tempting as it can be to let everything slide, and as difficult as it is to maintain some structure, it will help children maintain a sense of normalcy in a world that is nothing special. (And let’s be honest: predictability is good for adults too.)
Whatever your situation, whatever your limitations, it is worth making an effort to create a sense of structure and predictability, whatever that means to you and your family.
“It really takes a little thought and creativity to try to keep things going,” Smith says.
Watch for changes in behavior
As Birman points out, some regressions are normal, be it thumb sucking, toilet accidents, increased tenacity, or other behavior that your child has outgrown. However, as both Smith and Bierman point out, you need to watch for changes in behavior closely. If a normally outgoing child becomes withdrawn, or a normally cheerful child seems sad all the time, or if the child wakes up harder or behaves much more than usual, parents should monitor this behavior closely.
“If a child is unable to carry out his usual duties or his duties, this is really a big red flag,” says Smith.
Some children will be able to voice what is happening, but many will not. If a child wants to talk about their emotions, it is important to listen to them.
“Don’t ignore these warning signs, especially if they tell you so,” Smith says.
As Smith points out, a child’s willingness and ability to talk about their emotions is a better scenario, a sign that they are comfortable with you, and are also able to verbalize what is happening. It also gives parents the opportunity to listen to what is happening and help them cope with the situation. However, most children are still developing tools to understand and describe their emotions.
“Many children have not yet reached this level of awareness,” says Birman. In this case, it is important to know about your child if he may need additional help.
Seek help if behavioral changes persist.
If your child has persistent behavioral changes lasting several weeks or more, it is recommended that you seek additional help. It is also important to get help if the child appears to be in danger of harming himself or others. Assistance can be in the form of therapy sessions, which can be conducted via videoconference. It’s also worth calling your pediatrician for advice.
“It’s okay and okay to have a range of feelings right now,” Smith says. “You need to be careful [if] you start to see these emotions crowding out your daily life and activities.”