Despite making our time at home as fun and enriching as possible, our kids began flagging somewhere around the beginning of August. My 10-year-old seemed to be weathering the pandemic with as much grace as a 10-year-old could manage: he talked to his friends on Facebook Messenger Kids and even ran Dungeons and Dragons games. But my eight-year-old and six-year-old were clearly … not okay. They didn’t want to get in the pool. They didn’t want to play with their LEGOs. They didn’t want to do anything. We began to suspect it: our kids needed help we couldn’t provide.
There Were Early Signs They Needed Therapy
Looking back, I can point to signs that my sons needed therapy. My six-year-old threw huge tantrums when we tried to go for a hike, to the river— anywhere that there wouldn’t be people. He spent a trip to a deserted state park sitting in my lap. He refused to go for so much as a walk around the block.
My eight-year-old stopped sleeping regularly. He’d have trouble falling asleep, and then wake in the wee hours. We didn’t think anything of it until very recently. But like his brother, he also threw tantrums— weeping, screaming tantrums— that nearly had me in tears. Anything could set him off.
Both were anxious to leave the house, convinced they’d get sick. They worried when we left for errands to the grocery store or the drive-thru pharmacy. A visit from the HVAC guy, who never came in the house, ruined a full two days, and precipitated tears and worry.
We should have known then that they needed therapy then.
While everyone’s been bored during the pandemic, my two youngest sons could spend up to an hour lying on the couch. They said they had nothing to do and didn’t want to do anything I suggested, from glitter art to making slime to Kiva blocks to video games.
But Their Need For Therapy Became Obvious
It took a massive meltdown over a prospective doctor’s appointment to make us realize that our eight-year-old’s anxiety was truly out of control. All my kids have ADHD, but his is the most severe, and he needs medication to do schoolwork. But during the pandemic, we’d taken a med vacation (he’s very skinny, and his meds kills his appetite). We called the doctor to renew the prescriptions for both kids around the middle of August, and my son lost it when he found that he’d have to set foot in a doctor’s office.
Like, lost it.
He screamed and cried for hours. This probably sounds like an exaggeration. It’s not. He was so clearly terrified that we had to arrange telehealth for both kids, though the doctor preferred to see them in person. When I mentioned this to my own psychiatrist, she shook her head. “He needs therapy,” she said.
She was right.
Your Response to COVID-19 Matters Most
Your kids’ response to COVID-19 is most dependent on two things, Dr. Donna Housman, Ed.D, a psychologist with more than 35 years of experience in child development and early childhood education, told Scary Mommy. Your own response to the pandemic, and the amount of disruption in your kids’ lives are the major factors indicating how your kids will cope.
This makes sense; as someone with mental health issues, I haven’t coped well. I withdrew almost completely from my family. Both my husband and I had days when we completely lost patience— we aren’t yellers, but we became them. I broke down when my general practitioner insisted I visit in person. We were passing our stress to our children: something Dr. Housman notes as a major issue.
But There Are Other Obvious Signs Your Kid Needs Therapy
In retrospect, the signs that our children needed therapy were obvious: tantrums, sleep disruption, apathy, excessive anxiety. Housman names all of these as signs a kid needs help. In fact, she gave us a list of things to look for.
If your child is showing changes in their sleep or appetite patterns, therapy might be a consideration. Check that box for my sons. My kids also showed other signs she says indicate a need for therapy: apathy, reduced energy, and temper tantrums.
But there are more signs that my kids didn’t show. Anxiety and fear often manifest physically. Housman names persistent headaches and stomach aches as signs your kid could benefit from therapy. Moreover, if your kid is scared all the time, you may notice clinginess and age regression: your child, for example, demonstrates “regressed behaviors such as thumb sucking or bed wetting or other behaviors that were previously outgrown,” she says. Persistent nightmares also may indicate a need for help.
If any of these things persist for more than two weeks, “interfere with daily routines … or if they begin to disrupt the ability to interact with others or concentrate on daily activities,” Housman recommends therapy.
While You’re Waiting For Therapy, Here Are Some Tips
We’re getting the ball rolling for our kids, but having trouble finding a child psychologist in our area to begin therapy, so in the meantime, we’re taking some of Dr. Housman’s advice. She recommends that you encourage your child to share what they’re feeling: i.e., the root of the behavior. Of course, if you ask a kid in the middle of a tantrum how they feel, they’ll tell you they’re mad. So you may need to choose a quiet time and say something like, “I see you throwing more tantrums lately. That tells me you may be feeling scared or worried.”
You can ask why they feel that way, and hopefully open a dialogue that can hold you over until therapy takes over.
Another helpful tactic that Housman recommends while you’re waiting for therapy is to invite your kid to help you come up with ways for them to cope. This gives them a sense of agency and control in the process, and may help reduce anxious behavior. We’ve asked our kids what would make them feel safer when we go out; they elect to wear their masks constantly on the trails, rather than only donning them on the (very few) occasions we see other people.
The CDC has other recommendations. If your kid can handle it, talk to them about COVID-19 in a way that they can understand. They also recommend keeping up daily routines as much as possible and limiting news coverage.
You can also help, the CDC says, by spending plenty of time with your children and making yourself available for play when you can.
Where We Went Wrong
My husband and I were unable to cope with the pandemic well. The CDC and Housman both say that this is one of the most important things for children: a calm, collected caregiver that the CDC says “can lead by example.” Our anxiety spread to our kids. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s our fault that our kids need therapy — but our response is definitely a contributing factor.
Our pediatrician, during our virtual visit, offered anti-anxiety medication. However, we declined, preferring to try to deal with the behavior before we resorted to meds. But talking to your pediatrician is an important first step. They can refer you to a mental health professional that specializes in dealing with children.
We’re still waiting. There are lots of tantrums and tears. My six-year-old is becoming clingy. But we’re doing the best we can. Hopefully it’s enough.