By Dr. Jennifer Drake, MD
It’s been a long year.
It is hard to believe that over a year ago we entered the quarantine season thinking it would be brief—yet it continued, not for weeks, but months. My parenting calendar emptied quickly. Understanding the true nature of what we were facing, we reached out to our parents by FaceTime to make sure they were doing ok and had what they needed. We checked on friends by text to see how they were holding up. And we got word on neighbors from a safe distance. But were we checking on our own people, our children and teens?
It’s been a long year for them, too.
There were sports games we didn’t get to watch, the ones they didn’t get to play. There were performances called off and months of preparation lost. Senior proms and graduation got redlined. Gone forever. And time spent with friends, birthday parties, playdates, playoffs, and SATs—all canceled.
We often talk about the resilience of children. As a pediatrician, I see children adapt to new circumstances all the time. But they usually experience a change that is part of their life as the rest of their life moves on as usual. This time last year nearly everything changed. Students went from attending school and extra-curricular events one day to not returning for the rest of the academic year. Then they had to learn how to navigate online school. Many parents were stationed at home while continuing to work, so the dynamics with Mom and Dad being less available were different. Other parents couldn’t work at all, which brought financial stress to the family. Some got sick or even died.
Kids are resilient, but they are also smart and observant. They’ve seen and felt the stress and worries of school, work, finances, the pandemic, and concerns about illness for themselves or those they love. All this has influenced their mental health. In my office, I have seen drastically increased rates of anxiety, depression, and general stress and worry. For younger children, lack of socialization has altered normal social development and age-appropriate interactions with peers and others. Some youths have developed fears or anxieties about leaving home or becoming sick.
A recent survey showed that 50% of parents said the pandemic had negatively affected their teens’ mental health. From the stress of school at home, or hybrid school, or school with masks and social distancing to lost sports, missing those once-in-a-lifetime events such as graduation, or simply not being able to be age-appropriately independent, teens have had some major challenges in the last year. And none of this compares to the stress many experienced in losing a loved one to COVID-19 and the grief and anxiety that followed.
Thankfully, we are nearing the light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines are available for many and hopefully soon for younger teens and children. There will be an end to these adjustments we have had to make. Some sense of normalcy will return. Schools will reopen fully. We will sit on crowded sidelines of games and in full auditoriums for productions and graduations. We will hug our friends. And we will even toss our masks. Eventually.
But, as we return to more of a “normal” routine, we will continue to face transitions. Readjusting will bring its own set of challenges and stressors. For some children, having been away from school for a year and a half could present significant academic or social struggles. There will be shifts again to their routines, social interactions, and development. Students may feel anxious about returning to school/activities after a long break. They may wonder about the college process and how all of this will affect their future academics or careers.
So, how can we help our children and teens move forward and possibly have some healthy, happy memories of this whole experience?
• Let them know you are there for them no matter what. Explain that you care and want to know how they are doing. Be honest about what is going on, but in an age-appropriate manner. Let them be children without grown-up worries. Try turning off the news or powering down on social media. Let them know you will continue to take care of them even when things are difficult.
• Most importantly, talk to them. Communication is key. Start by asking how they are doing. What you hear may surprise you. They may have loved that you were home together, or the movie nights every night of the week, or the long walks you had time to take since you didn’t have to rush out the door. Or, they may be worried about something they haven’t voiced. Don’t negate anything they say. If it is a real worry to them, it should be real to you. Talk about it, validate it, and if needed, reframe it so they can see a more realistic picture. Reassure them and explain why things are getting safer—the vaccines work wonderfully, and we are seeing lower case numbers and improved understanding of treatments.
• If there is severe depression or suicidal thoughts, or grief due to the death of a loved one, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. In non-pandemic times, counseling is often necessary for children and teens, so this past year has only compounded those needs. And remember, just because things are beginning to renormalize, that doesn’t mean your child or teen will simply move forward without repercussions. Make checking on your children a priority.
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