Can you believe it? It’s now been six months since we learned of the first case of COVID-19 in our state. The pandemic has taken us from the end of one school year, through summer break, and now to a new school year with a new set of troubles.
As I wrote about last month, students and families are facing tough decisions, trying to figure out whether to return to school in person or go remote. Schools are constantly adjusting their plans as well, with some districts initially planning on virtual classes then opting for an earlier return to the classroom as soon as Cuyahoga County went from a Level 3 alert (red) to a Level 2 alert (orange).
Regardless of the specific back-to-school plans – which will likely continue to change as the year goes on – it’s even more important now to watch for signs that your child may be feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or even depressed. As the pandemic continues, and as children add on the stress of restarting school, the risk to mental health grows.
Stress and anxiety can look different for each kid, especially at different ages, but it can affect anyone, from babies to adults. Infants and toddlers may respond to stressful environments by becoming fussier or throwing more tantrums. They may have difficulty learning new skills or even begin to regress. For example, a toddler who is excelling at potty training may suddenly take a step backward in the process. Older children and adolescents may become more emotional, start worrying all the time, struggle to concentrate on schoolwork, experience changes in appetite (stress-eating or losing their appetite and never feeling hungry), or they may even show physical symptoms such as stomachaches or headaches.
Not only is anxiety rising because of the pandemic, there’s an increasing number of older children and teenagers suffering from depression. It’s normal for kids to sometimes feel sad or overwhelmed during this time, and it’s healthy to cry sometimes, especially if they’re missing friends or are feeling particularly frustrated over school. However, there are warning signs to look for that would suggest they might need extra help. These include frequent or severe mood changes, constant irritability or anger, pulling away from family or friends, a lack of interest in activities that your child previously enjoyed, changes in sleeping patterns or appetite, decreased concentration or memory, drastic changes in appearance, or even talk of death or suicide.
If you see signs that your child may be struggling with mental health issues, there are many ways you can get them the help they need. For milder cases of stress/anxiety or decreased mood, you can help them stay positive by reminding them that this is not permanent – at some point in the future this pandemic will end. Find ways to stay connected and busy as a family.
Even though they can’t see their friends like normal, there’s still plenty you can do together to enjoy yourselves. Try to stick with a routine, especially for kids who will be doing online school. Limit exposure to news or social media. Talk to your kids and encourage them to come to you if they feel like they need extra help or are becoming overwhelmed.
Most important, look for signs that your child needs more support. Reach out to your pediatrician if you think the anxiety and depression are severe enough to need help from a medical professional.
Remember to set an example at home and encourage open dialogue with the family, checking to see how everyone is coping with today’s constant stress. By doing so and seeking help from experts when needed, we can make it through this pandemic and come out stronger and more resilient on the other side.
And of course, I hope you all have a happy, healthy and safe new year – shanah tovah.
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.