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The Kids Are Not Alright

What you can do to help children struggling through the pandemic.

Key points

  • According to a recent study, close to one-third of high school students self-reported feeling depressed.
  • Stability and connection help support healthy attachment and feelings of safety in children.
  • Healthy attachments lead to more ability for children to self-regulate.
Alexandr Grant/Shutterstock
Source: Alexandr Grant/Shutterstock

As a therapist, I have a unique window into people’s lives and, sometimes, I begin to notice trends. One of those trends currently is around how much children are struggling. This is not only true in my practice. My phone buzzes multiples times a week with texts from old friends, new friends, and family, expressing concerns about their children: My child is crying all the time, My child is terrified of getting COVID, My child is having behavior problems at school, My child won’t do their homework anymore. What do I do? Is this normal? Why is this happening?

It makes sense that our kids are not fine right now. For starters, think about how much life has been upended over the past two years. School is on, then off, then on again. Distance and mask requirements are changing back and forth, sometimes daily. Many of us told kids they’d get vaccinated and have more freedoms again, and that wasn’t necessarily the case. And this doesn’t even start to touch that many kids have lost loved ones to COVID, are dealing with significant financial hardship, food instability, and school interruptions impacting learning and normal developmental growth opportunities. The implications are intense and profound, and many of them are not completely definable, as we are still riding out this pandemic.

Children need stability and connection

The fundamentals of what children need have not changed. Stability and connection help support healthy attachment and feelings of safety. "Attachment Theory" tells us that parental accessibility and responsiveness build strong bonds. Furthermore, healthy attachments lead to a better ability to self-regulate, which can help reduce tantrums, angry outbursts, and behavior problems. (Please note I said reduce, everyone gets dysregulated sometimes, especially children. To a point, boundary testing and negative behavior are a healthy and appropriate part of growth and development.)

What you can do

Here are a couple of things you can do to support your children and help them stay regulated during this tumultuous period of time:

Connect! Talk to your kids to understand what they know and what they don’t.

Often we assume that we are aware of what our kids know or feel. This assumption causes us to miss opportunities for connection and understanding, which in turn, may stand in the way of us supporting our children’s worry. Lately, I have been hearing lots of stories of parents who got COVID and had their child express terror about them dying, behave with extra clinginess, and have nightmares. Remember that many of our kids are not fully comprehending all of the details around the pandemic the way we are. Some of the angst kids feel may be eased by providing accurate, age-appropriate information. It’s helpful to start by asking what your child already knows. For example, you may ask:

  • “Things with COVID are changing so fast, do you have any questions?”
  • “I’m guessing you have heard about Omicron. Do you know how it is similar and how it is different than other strains of COVID?”
  • “It can be confusing that COVID precautions are different at our school than at (fill in the blank). Are you curious about that?

Understand this is normal right now, but also get support.

According to a recent study by America’s Promise Alliance, close to one-third of high school students self-reported feeling depressed. The Alliance describes this time as a collective trauma. According to the CDC, emergency room visits for mental health crises were up almost 24 percent for kids aged 5 to 11 and up 31 percent for kids aged 12 to 17 between 2020 and 2021. So often when clients or friends are telling me about the challenges coming up with their children, I want to normalize their experience. I remind them that they are not alone and that it makes sense our children are struggling. At the same time, I don’t want to normalize it away. Children need space and support to appropriately self-regulate and learn to cope and manage their emotions. Give your children space to have their big feelings, and consider talking with a school counselor or a child therapist. If you are able to do so in ways that work comfortably for your family, let them return to activities or social outlets that they have missed and are longing for.

For most of us, especially those vaccinated, we are currently in a place in the pandemic where mental health concerns may have more long-term impacts than physical ones. This is not universally true (many kids are too young to be vaccinated, some health issues make people more at risk for COVID than others, and there are some things about this illness we still don’t understand) but it is the case for many. When you think of it in that way, the need for mental health care and intervention becomes apparent.

References

Leeb RT, Bitsko RH, Radhakrishnan L, Martinez P, Njai R, Holland KM. Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1675–1680. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6945a3external icon.

Americas Promise Alliance. The State of Young People During COVID-19. https://www.americaspromise.org/sites/default/files/d8/YouthDuringCOVID…

Brumariu LE. Parent-Child Attachment and Emotion Regulation. New Dir Child Adolesc Dev. 2015 Summer;2015(148):31-45. doi: 10.1002/cad.20098. PMID: 26086126.

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