The wear and tear of the pandemic have impacted many aspects of our lives. The mental well-being of our tweens and teens has especially affected.
In fact, according to a recent press release from the American Academy of Pediatrics, they, along with The Children’s Hospital Association, are calling on U.S. government officials — and launching an awareness campaign — to prioritize children’s mental, emotional and behavioral health in proposals addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the February release, “This past (2020) summer, as the pandemic raged and social isolation limited access to school, friends and other support systems, hospitalizations at children’s hospitals significantly increased. These included increases of nearly 20 percent in suicide attempts and more than 40 percent in disruptive behavior disorders.”
With teens having normal stressors such as grades, social relationships and seeking independence from parents, the pandemic has brought on an additional worry. “(The pandemic) is exacerbating the stressors that are already there,” says Dr. Laura Gerak, Director of Clinical Psychology and Pediatric Psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital. She provides some ways parents can talk to their children and check on their mental health:
Parents need to talk to their kids about what’s happening in an age-appropriate manner. “One of the things is to share and be honest,” Gerak says. “For teens, this is a most unique time in their (young) lives.”
Validate their Feelings
For both kids and adults, we have missed a lot of activities, socialization and important milestones during the pandemic.
“Parents can validate the reality of that and give it the respect it’s due,” Gerak says. “Be there, willing to listen and not push it under the rug.”
She suggests follow-up questions like, “Tell me what it’s like” and “Is there anything I can do to help?” “What can we do to make it better?” or “How can we celebrate it differently?”
While celebrations might not happen until things open up, make plans and follow through when the time comes, she suggests. “They just need your support and to have faith in them.”
Families are dealing with the pandemic in their own ways. It might be harder for parents to gauge how teens are handling emotions, especially as their typical behavior is to hide away in their rooms.
“Have an open dialogue,” Gerak says, adding to set up a time to talk with your kids about how they are handling things that are happening. “Connect with your kids on a weekly basis,” Gerak says. She suggests trying not to jump to conclusions when speaking to them.
Also, it doesn’t have to be about their feelings, but take interest in what they are doing. Whether it’s a new online game or a Netflix series, show them you genuinely care about their activities.
Gerak suggests, if face-to-face isn’t working, you might want to get the dialogue through notes or texts. Some kids feel more comfortable writing things down. Have an agreed-upon place to pass notes along or keep a constant text thread.
Take Some Pressure Off
The pandemic year has provided significant school challenges in which kids are learning virtually, which can be good for some but not for others. Additionally, they might not have some regular supports in place, such as socializing with friends or participating in athletic activities.
“Take off the pressure we put on ourselves and give each other permission (to say) we are doing the best we can,” Gerak says, adding it might be a good time to re-prioritize what’s important.
When It’s More Than Typical Teen Angst
Dr. Laura Gerak, Director of Clinical Psychology and Pediatric Psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital, says normal is a rollercoaster, but if there is a pattern, meaning weeks of unusual behavior such as sleep and appetite changes or not wanting to do things they used to enjoy, it could be an indicator of depression.
If your child is talking about harming themselves, always take it seriously.
“If they are talking about (self-harm or depression), it opens the door (for a conversation with them) — let them be heard,” Gerak says, adding to take a deep breath as a parent, ask questions and suggest
“If they are saying things like, ‘I wish I wouldn’t wake up,’ etc., get some help,” she says, adding it doesn’t always mean kids will be admitted to the hospital.”
“Don’t freak out if you talk to a mental health professional that night,” she says. “Tell your kids, ‘Thanks for being honest (about your feelings). What kind of resources (can we seek) or who else can we talk to about it? We just want to make sure you’re safe.’”
She says the experts will do a safety assessment and help parents make that decision regarding next steps for your child.
If you or someone in your family needs help, reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or text the Crisis Text Line by texting “TALK” to 741741.