Concern For Kids Mental Health Has Reached a Dull Roar
“Working with everyone home and watching my kids’ mental health decline. My straight A son is a Sophomore, and he is failing. Our school system flip flopping on saying when they can go back F2F. So frustrating to have no control and feel helpless and hopeless at this point.”
“The increased responsibility and decline in available resources for myself and my child. Our outlets and interactions are limited and it’s taking a toll on the mental and emotional health of myself and my son.”
“Seeing my kids suffer and grow depressed and uninterested in life.”
“(I need) free social programs for me and my children. We are not doing well mentally.”
Over 1,900 parents, mostly Moms (98%) have shared their stories in our pandemic study since last March. Most felt pretty good about their ability to lean into parenting and make impossible tradeoffs in the beginning. Although it was often at the expense of their roles as workers, partners and caregivers to themselves. But in our recent survey wave (November through January) as mental health declines for many kids, for the first time, most (60%) cite doing ‘terribly’ or ‘not as well as usual’ as parents (an increase from 46% in the prior wave.)
Your Home is a Little Ecosystem
The growing concern, that their kids have “hit the pandemic wall” reached a crescendo. And without self-care, parents aren’t doing well either. And households are a bit like terrariums. If the conditions are right, everyone flourishes. But if anything is amiss – the soil, the light or health of other inhabitants, the whole system is at risk.
Sheltered-at-home, the strain is rippling through families. As social beings, we’re wired to tune into each other’s frequencies. Yes, including worry or sadness. So, anyone who isn’t doing well in the family, influences everyone else. Pre-pandemic, access to mental healthcare – especially for kids – was limited. So, what can we do to support children’s mental health as the uncertainty continues?
Seriously. Ashley Smith, Clinical Psychologist and Co-Founder of Peak Mind said, “Your bandwidth is maxed out as parents. And children’s ‘stress tanks’ are near the top. So, we need to adjust expectations.” Sigh. She points out that kids are having a natural reaction to unnatural circumstances. And she outlined how significant environment is to our mental wellbeing. She said, “We have conditions that are not setting us up to thrive.” There are, however, strategies that you can use to support mental health in your household.
Start With Yourself
Although surveyed parents have overwhelmingly (80%) sacrificed time spent caring for themselves, including sleep, letting your health go isn’t good for anyone. Certainly not your family. And it turns out that moods are contagious. So, protecting your own wellbeing has a positive impact on your household.
As shared in Psychology Today , “… Humans are social animals. We are constantly regulating each other’s nervous systems,” said Lisa Feldman Barrett, Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. “I can text someone halfway around the world. They don’t have to see my face or hear my voice, and I can affect their breathing, their heart rate, and the amount that they sweat. I can affect the functioning of their entire nervous system and immune systems, for better or for worse, with a few words …” And it’s not just that we’re wired to ‘feel’ what others feel, kids learn from what they see us do.
Pay Attention to Changes in Your Kids
Many surveyed parents cite stark shifts in their children’s patterns. And are distraught as they watch their kids wither or withdraw. Some surveyed parents of younger children, have seen signs of “regression” in sleep, potty training “independence” or “confidence.” Whereas many parents of school aged kids, cite their children’s “lack of motivation” or “engagement” with academics, especially remote learning.
Ashley said, “Covid is interrupting their trajectory.” And she advises we prioritize kids socialization with peers, ideally in person, sleep and emotional wellbeing over academics, if forced to choose. She said, “For many kids motivation has tanked in the virtual learning environment. But they’ll catch up.” Socialization and sleep play bigger roles in their healthy development over the long term.
And Don’t Be Surprised if They Act Out
Parents are concerned about kids who have suddenly begun acting out. Everything from losing their “social skills” to outbursts of “tears, anger or aggression.” Ashley said, “Kids would rather be yelled at than ignored. They crave attention, even if it’s negative.” Sigh. So, how can we deal with this?
She suggests, “Viewing children’s negative behaviors as a sign that they’re having a hard time – not giving you a hard time – can help cut down on parental anger and frustration and point you toward more helpful ways of responding. Look at the behavior chain, including what leads up to or causes the problem behavior and look at what follows the behavior.” Which can be difficult to remember in the moment.
She added, “This can help clue you in to what your child is struggling with and what they need. You may be able to address the problem behavior by meeting their needs proactively or in different ways.” Wise. She said although Covid has removed the “predictability and stability” kids need, “Aggression is not acceptable and it’s important to stand firm.” Consequences need to be age appropriate and call out the behavior, not the child, as problematic.
Model How to Cope
Ashley explained there are benefits to having open conversations about fears and triggers, in age-appropriate ways, with our kids. Especially if they’re asking for answers. Because the pandemic, racial inequality and many world events are scary. And talking with them honestly about it, including labeling our feelings, demonstrates positive approaches to life’s challenges. She said, “It’s okay to say, I’m feeling really overwhelmed, I’m going to go and take a quick walk.” She suggests getting creative and problem solving together. Whether it’s to build in ‘mini breaks’ to spend more time with your child if they’re feeling isolated or need added support during the day.
Pre-pandemic, anxiety and depression were increasing in kids and teens. So, Ashley advised, “If kids are isolating themselves you need to step in and get them out of their rooms. Even though they won’t like it.” She also suggests early-intervention, versus waiting until a situation is dire, when considering professional support. And if a child’s behavior or mood is interfering with their enjoyment and activities within daily life, it’s important to see an expert.
Seek Out Support
Ashley recommends that there are incredible resources to help, even when therapy isn’t available or a near-term option. She said, “For general child mental health, I love the Child Mind Institute and for COVID related support and resources, the Yale Child Study Center is a credible resource. And for anxiety and depression, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America has lots of good resources.”
And Remember, Kids Are Resilient
Ashley said, “Kids are incredibly resilient. It’s hard to break them!” And during this time when parents are consumed with guilt and self-doubt, it’s important to give yourself grace. And permission to have missteps. Learn to model the path forward in ways that build our children’s resilience and create capacity, within the family, to withstand difficult situations.
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Many thanks to the talented Ashley Smith!
Dr. Ashley Smith earned her PhD in clinical psychology with an emphasis in children and families in 2007. She completed a predoctoral internship at Children’s Mercy Hospital and Clinics before joining the staff at Omaha Children’s Hospital to help develop their dedicated anxiety services. In 2009, She relocated to Kansas City to serve as a senior staff psychologist at a nationally recognized anxiety specialty center from 2009-2017. At that time, she started a private practice, which she continues. In addition to direct clinical work, she is actively involved in a number of other scholarly activities. She has been an adjunct assistant professor and has provided supervision and consultation for students and other professionals. She has several publications including peer-reviewed articles, chapters in edited volumes, blog posts, and a book, Childhood Anxiety Disorders. She is a long-time member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and regularly presents workshops and trainings on local and national levels. Dr. Smith is passionate about sharing cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology practices, and applied neuroscience; this passion has driven efforts to help more people and in novel ways, ultimately leading to the creation of Peak Mind: The Center for Psychological Strength, which she co-founded in 2019.