May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, so this is a perfect time to reassess the mental health needs of everyone in the family.
The struggles, stress and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of the physical suffering of the illness itself, have taken a toll on everyone, from young children to the oldest adults. While there are reasons to be optimistic as more people get vaccines and restrictions start to loosen, it may take time to recover from the emotional roller coaster of the past 14 months.
For many children and their parents, the past year has been an increasingly difficult one. For kids, switching to and from in-person and virtual school has hurt their education and, perhaps, their grades. School has caused a large amount of stress for both kids and parents. Even if things have gotten easier over the past month or two as most schools returned to in-person learning, students must now deal with the stress of end-of-year state tests. These tests cause anxiety in “normal” years, let alone a year made more difficult by online learning and a pandemic.
There are other factors that may influence the impact of stress on kids this year. Children often feed off their parents’ emotions. Even from infancy, kids pick up on cues from their parents, no matter how subtle. When parents are dealing with their own mental health issues, they will not only struggle to help their kids, they may actually increase their kids’ stress levels. Therefore, it’s just as important to keep tabs on your own emotional well-being as it is to check on your kids.
One of the best ways to combat this increased stress is to have open lines of communication at home. Try to have honest conversations with your kids about any fears or concerns they may have. Watch for signs that your kids aren’t coping well and are struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. These signs can include difficulty sleeping, irritability, increased emotional instability, headaches, stomach aches and changes in eating habits. When symptoms are mild, you can help focus on ways to increase resilience, especially as a family. However, you should reach out to your pediatrician if you think the anxiety and depression are severe enough to need help from a medical professional.
Try to set an example for the rest of your family. Parents can set the tone at home by practicing resilience in the face of stressors and focusing on positives. When your kids are stressing about end-of-year exams, remind them that it means that summer vacation is approaching. When they’re missing friends or family, try to find ways to socialize outside, especially as more people become vaccinated. Find ways to break up the boredom that comes with being cooped up inside so long.
And most important, remind them that the pandemic will eventually end. As vaccines become more widespread and people continue to follow the social distancing rules, we will slowly march toward a return to normal life.
Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.