As much as the pandemic has inconvenienced adults, it has done even more to kids as evidenced by the number of kids currently seeking mental health support. As a mental health clinician who regularly treats kids, I have witnessed firsthand many very concerning issues, including the increased number of kids asking for mental health support, the nature of their mental health issues, and the seriousness of the issues they are experiencing. What used to be normal mood state fluctuations and anxiety concerns have been replaced with very serious depression, substance abuse, and increasingly more suicidal ideation and attempts. The reality is that kids are really struggling right now, and many do not feel as though there is a light at the end of the tunnel where things will ever return to normal. How did we get here? Like most complex issues, there probably isn’t one single reason that accounts for these changes, but instead a number of variables including the pandemic, a divided country in terms of politics and social issues, rampant technology that has minimized the need for kids to do real things with real people versus living a life primarily rooted in social media, and many more contemporary changes. This is a critical moment in time for adults who parent, teach, and coach kids, a time where the efforts we make will have a dramatic and direct impact regarding the speed in which we help kids return to a more normal life again.
Kids need our help
Often parents, including the most loving parents, miss signs that their child is distressed. In some cases kids hide their issues from parents, in other instances parents assume their kids are challenged but doing OK, and in still other cases the distress is poorly diagnosed (i.e. thinking it’s the ADHD acting up, when really it is major depression). And why are kids so distraught these days? People ask me all the time why are so many kids self-diagnosing, claiming they are depressed, or asking their parents directly for help? I think one answer to this question has to do with feeling left out, left behind, and not receiving the same amount of care and attention as before the pandemic.
When the world turned upside down in 2020, and we immediately went into lock-down and all the related changes that followed, we adults had our struggles relating to our jobs, safety, and stocking up on products before they ran out (i.e. we can all remember the toilet paper shortage!). As we raced to figure out what to do and how to best handle these once-in-a-century changes, kids were forced to move into remote learning and prevented from having traditional social interactions with friends. These changes resulted in a lot of isolation for kids, as well as an education delivery system (remote learning) that had a lot of kinks in the system, leaving many kids frustrated and pessimistic that they were receiving an adequate education. Throw in missed sports seasons, school dances, clubs, activities, and so much more, and all that was left was a “virtual existence” by means of social media and other digital communication. Herein is likely where the paradigm shift began, one that negatively impacted kids even more than the inconveniences we experienced as adults.
What we can do
You don’t have to be a mental health professional to know how to help improve your child’s wellness, as many of the ideas and techniques found in psychology are rooted in basic, simple, caring, loving human expression. Unfortunately, there is no “silver bullet” approach to helping kids overcome their stressors impacting their mental health, but the ideas below will help forge stronger relations, providing the best opportunity for kids to develop optimism, better self-esteem, and greater self-confidence for future wellness and success:
- Pay more attention to kids. Perhaps the most common concern I have heard from kids these last few years is how things have gotten so crazy these last few years that they feel as though their common needs and concerns too frequently go unnoticed, or quickly glossed over. We can all do better and actively ask what our kids are doing, what they are excited about, and the challenges they are worried about in the future. When kids feel as though parents are unconditionally invested in their lives, they are less likely to experience mental health that sometimes develop from feeling left out and that nobody cares.
- Enjoy their company. With everyone going in different directions, we need to create more down-time where we can simply sit with our kids, laugh, and enjoy the moment. Not everything needs to be on a deadline or rushed, as regular time outs in our schedule can really help recharge batteries, as well as allow us to learn about our kids and what’s on their mind.
- Support them. If you think the pandemic has been concerning to you, imagine how your kids feel when it comes to safety and an uncertain future. Aside form the general challenges we all face, many kids have their own unique issues that warrant special attention, yet seem to be overlooked these last few years. Lend a shoulder to lean on, and make sure your kids are told on a regular basis that you are open for talking anytime, anyplace.
- Listen to them. When your kids talk about the stress they are experiencing, listen to them! While you might not know what to do or how to fix their problems, by listening to kids we provide a safe, caring, responsible person to the equation, changing it from a problem solely experienced by your child to an issue being addressed by the family. Often it is this seemingly simple distinction relating to ownership of the problem and the people working together to fix it that ultimately determines whether success or failure follows.
- Offer empathy. Empathy is our ability to truly feel what a person is experiencing, and is a deeper level of emotion than sympathy (where we simply feel sorry for someone, but do not feel their pain). When your kids tell you about issues relating to safety, isolation, missed life opportunities, and other unique experiences, try to make it a point to feel what it must be like to be a kid and deal with those issues. Empathy is a super-strong tool that enhances relationships, pulls people together, and provides for the best chances to overcome distress.
While adults have certainly had pandemic-related challenges and frustrations these last few years, kids have had their own unique issues to deal with that haven’t always been noticed. Changes in education, extra-curricular activities, and social interactions have impacted kids, and many kids are still struggling to deal with a new normal. Normal child development that previously included traditional in-person school, clubs/activities, and sport participation have been increasingly replaced with social media and technology use as a means to cope with difficult times, often leading to anxiety, depression, and vulnerabilities with poor stress coping. As we work through the pandemic era it is important that we pay close attention to what kids are dealing with, and offer as much love, support, and empathy toward their experience as we can.