“I want to make sure my kids feel safe, loved, and secure during this time, but…it’s…a lot of work.” I said this recently with the air of all parents who are just trying to make it through the day right now. I said it in jest, but in humor is truth. We are being asked to play many roles, and I am not afraid to tell you that I don’t want half of them right now. I am doing my best to keep it together when I am with my kids because I know they are struggling too. Our kids are experiencing a pandemic also, and we need to remember to check in on the status of our kids’ mental health.
Kids are resilient, but being young does not exclude them from anxiety, depression, and stress. There is extra work and thought that needs to be done to protect my kids’ mental health; my most important role right now is that of a parent in touch with their kids’ emotions.
Signs of Distress
My oldest child is nine and her twin siblings are six. There has certainly been disappointment and frustration with a loss of playdates, Little League, school, and familiar routines. My kids cry and yell with abandon when they are sad or frustrated. (One is currently screaming about the injustices of cleaning up after himself.) They don’t hide their emotions—which I appreciate, even if begrudgingly at times—but there have been other signs that have told me that my kids have a lot on their minds. I have seen some regression in their behavior, and at least one of them is crawling out of bed each night because of bad dreams or trouble sleeping.
Dr. Shareh Ghani, a psychiatrist and VP Medical Director for Magellan Healthcare, is a father and is acutely aware of the toll the pandemic is taking on his kids and ours. He shared insights with Scary Mommy on how to protect our kids’ mental health.
Dr. Ghani reminds us that children, tweens, and teens will respond to stress in different ways. While some stress manifests through emotions, children may experience physical changes too. For younger children, Dr. Ghani says to be on the lookout for excessive crying or irritation, loss of interest of certain activities, excessive sadness, or a return to behaviors they have outgrown, like bedwetting or daytime bathroom accidents. Older kids will become more irritable and act out, have difficulty focusing, and may also display signs of excess worry and sadness. Kids of all ages may develop unhealthy eating or sleeping habits too. Dr. Ghani mentioned that unexplained headaches or body pains could be a sign that stress is getting the best of our kids.
Ways to Cope
In order to get to the root of what may be bothering our kids, Roger Ayers, MD, a board certified adolescent and adult psychiatrist and Medical Director at Magellan Healthcare, says that using open-ended questions to find out what our kids already know about the virus can help us get a sense of what they are thinking and feeling. Discussing facts and best practices to stay safe will help eliminate imagined—and sometimes scary—thoughts that fill in what they don’t know about the virus. But it’s not just the virus that is making kids feel unsafe or unsettled; a change in routine is throwing our kids off too. Dr. Ayers recommends finding a new and basic routine that keeps the day grounded. This new schedule includes eating, sleeping, movement, and activities to keep them engaged.
Dr. Ayers also recommends keeping media coverage away from kids. We should keep our kids informed about the importance of social distancing, school closings, and canceled events, but a consistent stream of information is better than contradictory statements from multiple sources.
However, social distancing doesn’t mean kids should lose their ability to be social. Keeping them in touch with friends through texting, video chats, or online gaming will help them cope too.
Children’s developmental needs and ability to understand the world is different during elementary, middle, and high school, so each age group will benefit from age-appropriate explanations when it comes to explaining COVID-19 and addressing the impact of its effects. But it’s important to take the time to honor our children’s disappointment with the loss of everyday and milestone events. It’s okay for our kids to feel upset that they are missing spring sports, prom, or graduation. Dr. Ghani says it’s important to validate our children’s grief, and to help them through it by talking to them about ways we process disappointments and anxiety we experience. We can be our children’s best role models.
Taking Care of Ourselves So We Can Take Care of Our Kids
For me, the hardest part of parenting through a pandemic has been to keep my emotions in check while managing my kids’ big, on-edge emotions. I want my kids to feel secure and happy, but I am struggling to maintain my own stability. I know I am shorter with them than usual and my patience is very thin. My sleeping habits aren’t great right now, and I struggle to stay positive at times. But I know gratitude and perspective are good for me, and I am doing my best to stay connected with support people and friends, exercise, and eat well. I am very aware of the need to take care of myself so I can take care of my kids.
According to Dr. Ghani, I am on the right track: “While your main focus is on the well-being of your child, it’s also critical to ensure you are taking care of yourself as to create a healthy support system for the rest of your family,” he says.
Dr. Ghani also suggests taking breaks and time to unwind. (I am not the best role model for either.) He says to step away from watching, reading, or listening to too many stories about the pandemic. Overexposure can cause us to become upset in the same way it can upset our kids. Instead, use that time to do an enjoyable activity. Read, watch TV, meditate, breathe, or take a nap. Fatigue is a common response to trauma and stress and parents are very stressed right now. And despite all of the memes and comments about day drinking, limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption is crucial. We have the power (and permission) to take care of ourselves; keeping tabs on our own mental health will help us take care of our kids’ mental health during the pandemic.
I don’t know when, but I know life will someday feel “normal” again. Until then, I can’t protect my kids from disappointment and sadness, but I can help them work through it. The world may feel unsafe, but if I can remain their safe place, we will all be okay.