Local health experts shared that parents can help their kids through healthy routines and habits as children, adolescents and teens find their emotional or mental health worsening during the pandemic.
Quarantine, social isolation, scary headlines and the disruption of everyday life has put added stress and anxiety on many during the pandemic, and local health experts agree that kids are not immune from that emotional toll.
One issue that many parents have expressed concern toward is the lack of socialization and the isolation that kids are forced to go through, especially for those who do not plan to go back to school at the beginning of the upcoming school year.
Dr. Courtney Whitehead, a licensed psychologist with Focus Forward Counseling and Consulting in Cumming, said that some of the adolescents and teenagers that she sees are now dealing with depressive symptoms as they have been forced to physically distance themselves from friends, family and others.
She said that they started sleeping much more, they no longer had an appetite and they were staying in their room more than normal or as expected of a teenager.
“They were quick to get adjusted to group chats or gaming online, so that was a big help for many of them,” Whitehead said. “Whereas others, if it’s not really an interest of theirs, they just kind of isolated themselves.”
Dr. Ann Contrucci, a board-certified pediatrician with 25 years of experience and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that parents with kids who were already prone to symptoms of certain illnesses such as mild anxiety have found that the added stress brought about by the pandemic has worsened those symptoms.
“If you’ve got a kid who has mild anxiety, it’s turned into a whole lot more than mild anxiety because of the stuff on TV, their parents are worried, they’re totally thrown off of their routine, and their brains start going 100 miles an hour,” Dr. Contrucci said. “Is this going to happen to me? Am I going to get sick? Is my mom going to get sick? Is my grandma going to get sick? Can I see my grandma?”
Dr. Contrucci said the situation may be especially difficult for children and young adults who have more severe symptoms and were receiving treatment before from a counselor or group therapy as that treatment came to a sudden halt or switched to virtual treatment.
She also said that, during mental health emergencies, many young adults are facing troubles seeking help in emergency rooms right now as medical personnel are more focused on treating COVID-19 patients.
“Kids, teenagers and young adults who need psychiatric care, and they go to the ER and it’s just — all anybody cares about is COVID,” Dr. Contrucci said. “And they’re not getting what they need. That’s why I say mental health and mental health care is the collateral damage of this virus. It has brought to light the terrible state of affairs we’re in in this country with mental health. It’s bringing out all of the holes. Mental health care is egregious in the United States.”
In an article that she wrote for KevinMD, Dr. Contrucci mentions examples of young adults suffering from eating disorders and anxiety with past suicidal thoughts and ideation that faced serious issues when visiting the ER during the pandemic. They weren’t allowed to have a parent with them to explain their medical history or were released from the ER without receiving the help that they needed.
Although this has put added pressure and difficulty on families, Dr. Contrucci said that she understands that medical professionals are also “overworked and overstressed” right now as the number of COVID-19 patients rise.
For kids who are simply trying to get over the stress caused by the pandemic, however, Drs. Contrucci and Whitehead said that there are several ways that parents can help them out at home.
Months into the pandemic as kids are starting to miss friends and family that they have had to keep a distance from, Whitehead said that parents can take action and work with their kids to find creative and safe ways to reconnect them with their loved ones. This could even mean just letting one person at a time come over and have a socially-distance soirée outside.
Whitehead also said that falling back into a routine and getting some structure to the day can ensure that kids who are going back to school can make a smoother transition to life with a schedule after months without one.
Whitehead and Contrucci both agreed that kids may struggle to get back into that mindset, and it could be one long-term impact on kids brought about by the pandemic.
“I think there is going to have to be a whole lot of grace being given and a whole lot of patience both on teachers’ parts and parents’ parts and everybody’s parts,” Dr. Contrucci said.
Both Whitehead and Contrucci also suggested that parents make sure that their kids are getting a healthy amount of sleep, which can greatly improve their mood. Especially with the added stress from the pandemic, Whitehead said that sleep can help reduce the emotional toll as long as kids are not overdoing it.
“Initially, that was one good thing that came out of [the pandemic],” Whitehead said. “The students that I work with every year who are in college or high school were like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m sleeping well. I’m getting plenty of sleep now.’ And then it kind of starts swooping into too much sleep sometimes or staying up all night gaming.”
Dr. Contrucci also suggested taking time during the day to be away from any screens, from headlines in the news and other stressors such as social media and just spend time together as a family. This can give kids and parents time to take their minds off of the pandemic and live in the moment.
Whitehead and Contrucci said, however, that one of the biggest ways that parents can help is to make sure that they are keeping an eye on their own mental health.
“A parent also needs to be aware of their potential anxiety and be aware that they also need to do self-care,” Dr. Contrucci said. “The old, ‘You have to put your oxygen mask on before you put somebody else’s on.’ So parents also have to take care of themselves. I really stress that. That’s very, very important.”
Whitehead explained that parents can often have expectations for their kids while forgetting their role in teaching and modeling certain behaviors for them. While it is important to help kids through the pandemic, parents will not be able to do that if they themselves are not doing well emotionally or mentally.
“So if the parents kind of drop the ball because of their stress, which is totally understandable because everyone is going through it, and they lost the structure and routine, it’s really hard to expect their kids to stick with it, too,” Whitehead said.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also offers advice and resources for teenagers and young adults on how they can work to deal with stress and anxiety during the pandemic on its website.
For those who need immediate assistance with their mental health, they should call 911 to ask for help.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline, available 24/7, is also there to help people of all ages. If you need help, simply call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with a counselor.
Whitehead said that she normally recommends Crisis Text Line to teenagers and young adults as they may be more inclined to text rather than call. Simply text HOME to 741741 to text with a counselor.
“There’s a lot of things we can’t control right now, but there’s also a lot of things we can control,” Contrucci said.