Blog: Not All Child and Teen Pandemic Related Mental Health Issues Look Alike

Dr. Carey Heller
Dr. Carey Heller

Dr. Carey Heller; Licensed Psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland

For many parents, besides their own worries in general and those related to how the pandemic is impacting them, often there is a concern for how it impacts their children and teens. Some issues are frequently somewhat easier to identify such as a child or teen who refuses to participate in distance learning school, won’t leave their room, stops showering, or other similar behaviors.

However, for many children and teens who are struggling, the signs may be far more subtle. For example, take the child who is desperate for social interactions in person and clings to any opportunities to see peers face-to-face or seems overly appreciative when given a chance to see friends in person. Or, the teen who has become increasingly anxious and irritable as the time to return to school in person approaches or after their parents begin returning to work in person. In both cases, the child or teen likely is experiencing difficulties either directly due to or exacerbated by the pandemic. Furthermore, for a large percentage of people, including children and teens, there is a prolonged experience of disappointment, mourning the loss of how life used to be, and increasing struggle to adapt to constantly changing circumstances.

Children and teens don’t usually have the same cognitive capacity as adults to process the complexities of the pandemic and its impact on them. In addition, especially for younger children and teens, they often may lack the full ability to identify and label how they are feeling and why. Furthermore, children and teens may be anxious about expressing fears, feelings, etc. for a variety of reasons, including concerns if they perceive their parents to be overly stressed or anxious about pandemic related things themselves.

Therefore, two key ways to address things with your child or teen are as follows:

  • Identify the potential issues that are occurring (i.e., loneliness, grief, guilt, sadness) in addition to how these may be manifesting themselves (i.e., school refusal, withdrawal from available social interactions).
  • Help your child or teen find the language to express how they are feeling or what they are thinking.

Identifying Issues:

  • Be mindful of behaviors that you see. Increased irritability, withdrawal, more temper tantrums, out of character behaviors, and sadness are a few examples.
  • From there, start to look at what is causing the behaviors. Is your child or teen isolated from peers? Are they becoming more irritable from excessive screen time during school or at other times?
  • It is crucial to understand the issues occurring, not just how they are manifesting, since one could see the same behaviors for multiple reasons (i.e., refusing to participate in school).

Helping your child/teen to express feelings and thoughts:

  • Consider sitting down with your child or teen and asking them how they are doing with things regarding the pandemic as a starting point. Some kids might take this open-ended question as a way to start vocalizing issues. Others may be hesitant to disclose that they are struggling or lack the ability to verbalize what they are feeling or thinking.
  • If needed, you could say something such as “I’ve noticed you seem overly eager any time you get to see friends in person.” Your child or teen may just say “yes” or could use this as an opportunity to think about that statement and articulate more about their feelings or thoughts. Perhaps they might say “yes, I miss seeing friends in person most of the time.” This may also be a way to open up a deeper conversation such as exploring gently whether they may be feeling lonely.
  • Processing the loss of life as they knew it prior to the pandemic is also helpful when relevant.
  • Giving children and teens hope by helping them see that the pandemic is not forever and that things will presumably slowly begin going back to normal is important.
  • Finally, when feasible, find tangible ways to make things better for your child or teen. Practical things like more social interactions virtually or in-person, mitigating issues with distance learning school (i.e., desk bike to manage trouble sitting during class), more frequent talks at home about things, or talking to a mental health professional are a few examples of somewhat simple ways to help your child or teen make things better during the continued pandemic.

The pandemic has been difficult for most people. While there are no truly simple fixes for the complexity of issues caused by the pandemic’s impact, taking steps to mitigate the negative items as much as possible is important. Furthermore, see if there is even some way to find a silver lining in the pandemic (i.e., more time as a family).

Copyright 2021 Carey Heller, Psy.D.

*Disclaimer: The previous information is intended as general guidance based on my professional opinion, does not constitute an established professional relationship,  and should not replace the recommendations of a psychologist or other licensed professional with whom you initiate or maintain a professional relationship*

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