The Children of Our Nation are Struggling
A client of mine recently showed up at our session with a defeated look on his face. He was worried about his 10-year-old daughter.
“She hates going to school,” he shared. “Every morning she begs us to stay home.”
My client had watched his daughter go through a year and a half of online learning. In short, he had hoped that she would be eager – if understandably anxious – to be back in the classroom.
Online learning had brought its own distress. As a result, he, along with other parents, had hoped seeing classmates again would lift their children’s spirits. He and his wife had been reassured by the school’s precautions that the children would be safe and disruptions would be minimal. Furthermore, his daughter had learned to adapt to mask-wearing.
He was at a loss as to how to help her.
“Teachers, kids, everybody thought we were going to come back this year and everything would be back to normal,” says Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite. She is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and senior vice president at Array Behavioral Care in Chicago, Illinois. “Now that it’s not, how do we prepare kids for another potentially challenging year?”
Impact on Children and Teens
The pandemic has taken a toll on child and adolescent mental health. Recently released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between March and October 2020, mental health-related emergency room visits rose by 24% for children ages 5-11. It rose 31% for children ages 12-17. Moreover, suspected suicide attempts increased by half among first 12-17.
In addition, more than 140,000 U.S. children have lost a primary caregiver to COVID since March 2020. Children of color are reportedly 4.5 times more likely than white children to have had a caregiver die.
Research also shows that compulsive use of the Internet by adolescents increased to 24% during the pandemic. This was already a pre-pandemic concern. Finnish researchers confirmed a link between adolescent loneliness and internet addiction, and subsequently between internet addiction and depression. Their findings also revealed that at highest risk are teenage boys.
The Role of Social Isolation
“The last 19 months have been so isolating for many adolescents,” says Liz Galasso. Galasso is a therapist and clinical site supervisor at the Viva Center. “Socialization with peers is critical in the formation of adolescent identity and navigating and developing boundaries.”
Galasso has a background in child and adolescent mental health and substance abuse treatment. She explains that the increase in electronic use during the pandemic- in part due to online schooling- placed children and adolescents at increased risk for the “dopamine rush” that electronics provide.
At a time when their lives have been in such upheaval, says Galasso, it’s understandable why young people would seek relief in electronic use.
Galasso sees young people in her practice for a range of mental health issues. She reflects on the despair that young people are experiencing.
“The world as they knew it is no longer, and the future feels uncertain for many of them,” she says. “There is a lot of despair.”
However, Galasso shares that there are general activities you and your child can engage in to turn the tide of what she is seeing with her youngest clients.
Galasso Gave us her Top 5 Tips to Support Kids during COVID-19:
- Listen intently and with focus. Be present and curious during communication.
- Set a balance for screen time. Provide relatable reasons concerning the need for balance. For example, shutting down screen time before bed because it interferes with sleep. Lead by example and limit your screen time, too.
- Support a healthy routine with sleep and grooming habits. Maintaining a structured routine promotes kids’ sense of calm and safety.
- Plan outdoor activities to encourage physical activity, socializing, and connectedness.
- Create welcome distractions. Schedule pure fun together: have dinner, cook meals, create art (music, drawing/painting, collages), game night, movie night.
Galasso says, “Providing a sense of safety and security at home assists in supporting your kid’s resiliency and happiness.”
However, here are some warning signs to be aware of.
Changes in behavior, mood, sleep, and eating patterns may indicate that children and adolescents are struggling emotionally. For older children, changes in personal hygiene, loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, increase in risky behavior, withdrawing from relationships, and changes in academic performance can all indicate difficulty in coping.
In conclusion, during this challenging time, parents and teachers need to be open to answering questions from struggling children and teens. Equally important is to take seriously any concerns or statements about emotional states, including suicidal thoughts. Seek the involvement of a school counselor and/or child and adolescent therapist if you have concerns about your child’s emotional well-being.
If you are worried about your child right now, please know you are not alone. There is a way through even the darkest moments.
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “No Holiday Hugs: How can you cope with lack of touch?” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management.”