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Coping Through COVID: Supporting Mental Health in Children and Teens throughout the Pandemic

March 1, 2021 by Amanda Morales Clarke, Psy.D.

Over the past year, children and families have faced an extraordinary amount of change and adversity. The pandemic has impacted our children’s everyday lives in a multitude of ways–from their social experiences, schooling, activities, milestones, to holidays and traditions. Not only has this had a tremendous impact on children, but caregivers have had to learn to navigate these new experiences, sometimes with multiple children and/or while balancing their own work lives simultaneously. Some families are facing financial difficulties due to job loss or income reduction, possibly resulting in food and/or home insecurity. Tensions may also be running high as families have been living in close quarters with one another without their usual space or coping outlets at their disposal. Unfortunately, many have also experienced the loss of a loved one due to the virus and, due to safety regulations, may have experienced isolation in their time of grief.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been a heavy experience. These changes were sudden and unexpected, and children and families were forced to adapt quickly. Subsequently, many children and families alike have experienced an increase in stress, as well as feelings of anxiety, sadness, disappointment, frustration, uncertainty, anger, etc. These are all normal reactions to the adversity we are all facing.

Behaviorally, children may vocalize an increased worry about their own health and safety, as well as articulate concern for their loved ones. You may notice changes in eating and sleeping patterns, especially now that everyone’s routines are so different. Children may also complain about trouble falling asleep, or an increase in nightmares. You may notice a change in your child’s ability to concentrate or focus on one task at a time to completion. Sometimes our feelings are masked by physical complaints–such as headaches and stomach aches. It’s important not to dismiss physical complaints and consult with your doctor as needed; however, if there is no underlying medical reason for these complaints, the root of the issue could be emotional or psychological. Another thing you may see in children of all ages is an increase in irritability and a decrease in frustration tolerance. They may come off as grumpy, and little things that ordinarily wouldn’t bother them may cause more frustration than they would normally show.

As a caregiver, it may be difficult or overwhelming to see your child struggling with some of these things, and you may wonder how you can support your child or teen’s mental health during this time. In many ways, this will be dependent on your child as an individual, as well as their age and development. The good news is that there are several things we can generally do as caregivers to help our children through this adversity and build their resilience:

Model kindness. This means being kind to yourself. We were all thrown into this new way of life without any concrete guidelines on how to adapt and manage everything. Some days will be better than others—we may not achieve everything we had planned in a given day, kids may not have followed their school schedules perfectly, or maybe you yelled over something relatively small because you were stressed out. It is okay. No one is perfect, and no one is expecting you or your child to be perfect, either.

Pay attention to words and thoughts. What we say to ourselves matters. Negative thoughts can make us feel worse and make it less likely for us to persevere. If we reframe negative thoughts into something more positive or even more neutral, we can reduce the likelihood that our thoughts exacerbate or maintain uncomfortable feelings. A question you may ask yourself to assist in this process may be: Is this thought helping or hurting the situation? Helping kids reframe a thought like, “I’ll never catch up on this school work” to “It may take me longer than I want it to, but I’ll finish each assignment one at a time” can make things feel less overwhelming.

Utilize helpful coping skills. Breathing techniques can act as effective tools to combat stress and manage difficult feelings. When we take controlled, deep breaths in through our nose and out through our mouths, we are helping to regulate our nervous system. Another powerful coping strategy is mindfulness, which helps us focus on the here and now, instead of worrying about the future or becoming engrossed in the past. There are tons of helpful, easily accessible apps and videos available online that demonstrate a variety of these techniques. Don’t just make your children do these exercises! These are great tools to model and practice together.

Practice self-care. Practice your own self-care, and promote self-care activities for children individually, as well as a family. There are many areas we can focus on as far as self-care goes, however, for the sake of making it more manageable (and therefore more likely to be implemented), try focusing on just a few areas, such as mind, body and spirit. Examples of self-care activities include:

  • Mind: Journaling; maintain routines; declutter, clean or organize; “unplug” from technology; ask for help if needed; talk out your feelings; create a gratitude list;
  • Body: Exercise or physical activity; stay hydrated; eat a balanced diet; get enough rest/sleep;
  • Spirit: Virtual or socially distant hang outs with friends or loved ones; spend time with a pet; have a good laugh by watching a funny show or movie; do something nice for someone

Do not be afraid to get creative! I am constantly blown away by the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the youth and families with whom I work. You can make this a family activity where you sit down together and identify different self-care actions that can be implemented individually and/or as a family. Just as it is important to plan for emergencies, it is also important to make plans to maintain and enhance our mental health and well-being.

It is important to note that if your child or teen is struggling due to the changes brought on by the pandemic, this in and of itself is not indicative of mental illness. Everyone’s mental health is being put to the test right now. There are some situations, however, where it is important to seek out additional support in the form of a consult with your child’s pediatrician, an evaluation with a mental health professional, and/or therapy. When symptoms interfere with daily life, affecting school, home life, and/or their relationships with others, it’s important to pay attention to these symptoms. Excessive fears and worries, frequent, intense tantrums, physiological complaints, especially if these behaviors are persistent, all warrant additional support. There are certain situations that definitely require more immediate support and intervention, such as when a child or teen makes suicidal statements.

Amanda Morales Clarke, Psy.D.

Dr. Amanda Morales Clarke earned her Psy.D. in clinical psychology from the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University. She specializes in working with children, adolescents, and their families experiencing a variety of concerns, including behavioral problems, anxiety and mood disorders. She also has a special interest in working with youth who

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