Four months and counting and the toll on our mental well-being that the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted is substantial. Now, imagine what kinds of emotions it could be creating in our children who often have little experience dealing with dramatic change. While children are resilient, COVID-19 is surely testing the limits of that strength. It is more than plausible that your child could face a significant emotional downturn, if not outright depression.
That unfortunate reality is daunting enough but with the current restrictions and limitations on health and mental wellness resources, facing the situation can seem insurmountable. The good news is that it’s not. Taking an accurate inventory of your child’s emotional well-being is the way to start, helping them stay mentally strong and finding resources to aid them out of challenging times is the next step.
Staying constructive and action-oriented can help mitigate children’s chances of developing depression and feelings of overwhelm and helplessness during and after this pandemic. https://t.co/VIWymFdep6 #parentingduringapandemic #COVID19 @DianaDivecha pic.twitter.com/kXDjuisowv— Greater Good (@GreaterGoodSC) May 18, 2020
Assessing Your Child’s Mental State
To keep your child from descending into potential mental health pitfalls, you must first assess how they are handling the current situation. Some of the same things that could cause your children emotional distress or depression – isolation and restrictions – can actually help you take inventory of how they are doing emotionally as you will have ample opportunity to observe their behavior and communicate with them during your time together at home.
Make talking about how they are feeling part of your daily routine. Help your kids out by using one of many emotional check-in ideas that destigmatize mental wellness and actually could be fun. You can ask your kids to give you an Internal Weather Report (Sunny, stormy, cloudy?), rate their feelings on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best), ask them to talk about their best and worst moments of the day, or have them describe their mood in terms of a movie or song?
Tackling the issue head on is admirable, but parents must also be ready to dig deeper if their children are not ready to share. There are various warning signs to look out for but everyone, including children, will experience emotional highs and lows during this pandemic, so being able to distinguish between regular variations and signs of bigger issues is tricky. Your kid could just be in a foul mood, but that is generally limited to no more than a day or so, whereas clinical depression and more serious situations persist well beyond 24 hours.
“A depressed child can dwell over the same issue for an uncommonly long time,” says Michele Borba, Ph.D., educational psychologist, parenting expert and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. “While some kids seem to bounce back and get on with their lives, a depressed child lacks the ability to cope.”
Keep a Close Eye on Teens
As expected, teenagers are particularly vulnerable to depression and other mental health challenges for a variety of societal, cultural and physiological reasons, so troubling anecdotal information from the 211 Miami helpline should raise a red flag for Miami-Dade parents. Cora Paterson, senior manager of The Children’s Trust-funded helpline, told Time.com that call volume has more than doubled since the pandemic started, with a lot of those interactions disturbingly focusing on teens seeking help.
“We normally get suicide calls but we are noticing that more of the calls are coming from teens, some of them have plans already (as) they thought about overdosing on pills,” Paterson said. “It’s difficult because they are in the house with parents every single day, sometimes it’s the parents causing them to feel this way, based on how they are speaking with child or abuse. That’s when we come up with a safety plan, what can you do to try to keep yourself safe or from feeling suicidal -- what are the steps you can take to make sure you are safe.”
What Parents Can Do to Help
Though parents can feel helpless in the face of factors beyond their control, they are still in the best position to get kids in a healthy state of mind. A positive home environment is critical for kids considering they will be spending even more time there and with you than usual. Some structure is advisable even in the summer and regular family meals might be the best way to nurture the relationship – try involving your child in the preparation, cooking and or cleaning for starters.
“The feeling of a safe environment where relationships really matter in a positive way is essential and will have a strong effect in the long term,” said Dr. Gil Noam, founder and director of The PEAR Institute (Partnerships in Education and Resilience) at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Noam told the Boys and Girls Clubs of America’s website that young children need parents to be available and in close distance as much as possible, while school age children need structure but with room for compromise. Teenage children will need more space, according to Dr. Noam, with parents best chance of reaching them simply by watching movies and listening to music together, and presenting themselves for more communication with their teens if they want it.
Getting Help When You Need It
If you suspect your child is suffering from depression, ask your family doctor or pediatrician to provide you with a referral to an appropriate mental health professional. “No one knows your child better than you. If you suspect something is wrong, chances are you’re right,” says Borba.
There are also others who provide available mental health services for low-income families like the Institute for Child and Family Health (ICFH), which provides mental health services including Individual/family therapy and psychiatry for children and adolescents in Miami Dade County. Other telehealth options for mental health assistance include MD Live, which allows patients to connect to medical and pediatric doctors and access behavioral health therapy services and psychiatry whenever they need it, and TalkSpace, a convenient and affordable way to work toward improving your child’s mental health for rates starting at $25 a week.
Parents and children can also call 211 Miami to speak with operators trained in directing children to get the help they need and calming them in moments of extreme stress and tension.