Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, individuals and families across the world have experienced significant fear, panic, stress, isolation, grief, and uncertainty surrounding the virus. Parents and adolescents of all ages have been forced to navigate unknown territory, especially regarding their education and social interaction. One of the largest and less obvious challenges surrounding the pandemic has been the decline in children and adolescents’ well-being and mental health.

Experts have found that adolescents and young adults may try to hide their suffering because of fear, shame, or a sense of responsibility to avoid burdening others. While younger children may find it difficult to express their feelings. This being said, it may not always be apparent when children are struggling.

In a recent interview, we asked our Director of Addiction and Mental Health Services, Barrett Harr, to share some of her expertise on the subject. She shed light on the challenges children may face, tips for how parents can support their kids during this time, and what parents can do to help themselves.

Potential challenges children and adolescents may face

When considering brain development, it’s important to recognize the challenges that children may be facing. Harr expressed that with adolescents being forced to stay home, and not have the same social interaction with their peers, delayed development can occur. Since teens are not separating from their parents, they aren’t discovering and forming their own identity. 

Some parents may believe that, when they were young, they were reaching milestones at specific ages (learning to drive, graduating, starting college, etc.). In comparison, this generation of teens may be crossing those milestones later in life. According to Harr, the pandemic has prevented adolescents from developing the thoughts, approaches, and opinions that occur when surrounded by their peers.

Additionally, Harr expressed that the lack of social interaction may result in an enhanced level of social anxiety for teens. This will become more apparent when they begin to emerge from the pandemic restrictions. Even if it is something as simple as ordering at a restaurant, stating their needs will feel foreign. They will not be able to carefully compose, edit, and send a response through technology. Informal conversations will be harder for teens as they begin to interact more with each other. 

When we do return to a sense of “normalcy,” it’s critical not to have high expectations of what should be happening (going from 0 to 60). It will be an adjustment moving from being at home and isolated (not doing extracurricular activities), to picking everything back up at once. This will create another level of stress that is neither warranted nor healthy. Harr emphasized that we need to be gentle and kind with our families. We should not rush children back into any situation. 

Tips for parents to support their children during this time

Limit data consumption:

Harr reminds us that during this time, it’s crucial to limit data and news consumption. No matter the age, children feed off of how their parents react to situations. By compulsively checking the news, coronavirus statistics, and talking bout the pandemic, parents are creating hyper-awareness in their children. 

Although it’s important to stay informed, it’s critical to have responsible news consumption. Parents should try to avoid falling into either the “dismissive” or “fear-mongering” categories. Staying neutral not only helps their own mental health, but also the mental health of their children.

Don’t judge other families:

According to Harr, parents need to remember that every family is different, and not to judge others. Rules, standards, and opinions may vary. Each family knows what they are comfortable with, depending on their situation. We don’t know who may have a family member with pre-existing conditions, who may be caring for a loved one, or whether there are other extenuating circumstances. 

Validate your children’s experiences/feelings:

When children are having a hard day, it’s common for parents to quickly dismiss their feelings. They may try to comfort their kids and tell them “everything is fine,” or “this too shall pass.” Instead, parents should consider that the pandemic is a new situation for everyone. In the eyes of a child, this situation is a very big deal and may feel like the worst thing that has ever happened to them. It’s important to validate these feelings and be understanding of what they are going through. Remember to listen, see things from a new perspective, and be there for children, rather than minimize the experience. By saying something along the lines of, “it is frustrating that you can’t go out and see your friends right now,” parents are addressing these feelings, as opposed to dismissing them. 

Keep an eye on red flags:

As a result of the pandemic, isolation has pushed some children to an unhealthy mindset. From dependence on screens, and isolating in their bedrooms, to refusing to interact with family members. Parents need to be mindful of what is happening. Everyone has days when they feel like “checking out” and not being productive; however, when it becomes a pattern, that is a red flag. Parents should take note of whether their children have had a change in behavior. This includes changes in eating or hygiene habits, mood changes, or other warning signs. By doing this, parents can help manage their children’s mental health and keep it at a safe level.

If parents are met with resistance

Some parents may be faced with resistance when it comes to their children expressing their feelings. When this is the case, there are resources and other options available to help parents and their children. 

Currently, most school districts have an extra focus on social and emotional health. Parents can reach out to school counselors to check-in, especially if their kids struggle to manage schoolwork and meet deadlines. It’s not uncommon for children, even those that were A students before the pandemic, to require help. Parents should notify counselors if they notice specific behavior changes, or if their child is having a hard time. 

Another approach that parents can take to check in with their children is to engage in activities that they are interested in. For example, if kids are passionate about playing video games, parents can say, “tell me about this game, I want to learn more about it, would you be able to show me how to play?” Discover what’s interesting about the game, whether they’re meeting new people online, and their favorite aspects of it. This is a great way to communicate with children and relate to them instead of trying to pull them away or shaming them for something of interest to them.

Furthermore, Harr suggests spending time outside. Even if it’s a quick walk around the block, find time to do something different together, as this will improve mental health. Harr expressed that it’s important for parents and children to be present and in the moment together.

If parents have additional questions or concerns or feel that something is wrong, consult with their doctor. Discuss the available treatment options, whether that be therapy, medication, or another approach. 

How parents can also help themselves 

Often, parents put the needs of their family ahead of their own. They get busy with work and other obligations, abandoning their own mental health.

Remember to find time for self-care. Whether it’s getting outside for a walk, calling a friend or family member, or seeking help to process feelings and emotions. It’s important to demonstrate to oneself, and to family, that mental health is a priority. 

If you are interested in watching the full interview with Barrett Harr and learning more on this important topic, click here.

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, it can be challenging to determine the next steps. At Feinberg Consulting, our team of highly trained professionals is here to help you find the proper treatment. Contact us today to learn more at 877.538.5425.