Four ways to help kids and teens cope with COVID-19 stresses

Parents celebrate the return of children to the classroom. Educators, health workers and parents all agree: children should be in school. Given the challenges we have all faced, I am amazed at how well we have adapted to and coped with the public health demands of the pandemic. Hats off to parents and teachers who have done online schoolwork.

But the pandemic has taken its toll on children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a recent wrist survey, found a 24% increase in 2020 from 2019 in emergency room visits for children 5 to 11 years old.

Teenagers have had even more trouble. They’ve had a 31% increase in mental health-related emergency room visits from 2019. In a March study in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that suicidal ideation and gestures in teens were 1.77 times more likely in July 2020 than in the same month in July. 2019.

I suspect these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. Probably many children suffer in a less dramatic way.

Dr. Alka Atal-Barrio, a longtime pediatrician in our community and chief medical officer at The Everett Clinic, shared her observations of children and families over the past year

“When COVID first hit, there were a lot of happy kids of all ages – more time at home, more time with family, mom and dad at home, and minimal school time,” she said. “Then fall 2020 – fear of going back to school, missing their friends, getting tired of mom and dad looking over their shoulders, no sports and no outlets. In October 2020, we started to see stress-related physical problems, and anxiety and depression became 75% of my day. I watched suicide rates soar. I send one child a week to the emergency room with a suicide attempt. ”

Dr. Zsolt Lorant, a child psychiatrist at The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health, explained how the pandemic is weighing on children.

“When I ask kids how they are doing, more often than not they say they are tired,” he said. “I’m sure it means they’re tired of what’s going on, tired of the virus, tired because their sleep schedule is messed up, tired because they feel restless, tired because they move less, tired with it. not living a normal life … just tired. ”

I understand how they feel.

As we move towards more widespread vaccination and the hoped-for reduction in the spread of COVID in the community, our lives should get closer to what was normal.

I am hopeful that young children will soon rebound. I am more concerned about older children who may have more trouble moving forward. Sometimes when crises are over, mental health concerns grow, like aftershocks from an earthquake. It is important that parents and teachers are vigilant.

How can we help children cope?

Encourage children to go outside. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises, “Encouraging children and adolescents to participate in physical activities and spend time outdoors with peers, while employing risk mitigation strategies, can help improve physical and mental health.” For longer days and warmer weather, turn off the gaming devices that were used extensively during the pandemic and send the kids outside.

Family meals are important. Many studies have shown that teens achieve better results in families that eat together. It’s an opportunity to connect, to discuss daily issues, and to enjoy something that most teens love to do – food. For ideas on making meals special, visit familydinnerproject.org, a Massachusetts General Hospital program that offers tips and ideas on how to improve the quality of family meals.

Be aware of potential problems. Withdrawn behavior, isolation, loss of interest in usual activities, physical pains, restricted eating, binge eating, sleeping problems, more frequent collapse or worrying may be signs that your child needs help. Teens, who aren’t big talkers, may be holding their feelings in, making it harder to know what’s going on with them.

Share your concerns with your pediatric healthcare provider. The pandemic has sparked an explosion in tele-health visits. If you are concerned about your child, schedule an in-person or remote visit with your pediatric healthcare provider. They can help you figure out what to do.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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