Not quite three years ago I traded my role with the community mental health center for freelance work that would allow me to stay home and manage my family. This flexibility has been a blessing while navigating family affairs ESPECIALLY in the midst of pandemic. Even so, mental health has remained top of mind for me especially where our children’s mental health is concerned.
The mental and emotional well-being of children has always been close to my heart, particularly as the rates of youth suicide (both attempted and completed) have risen. So many stressors and triggers were already present. Now we’ve piled on stressors we never could have imagined in the form of pandemic.
Inconsistent routines and schedules. So many unknowns. Isolation and inability to adequately meet the social needs of our children. Job loss and resulting financial instability. Health concerns. Death of family and friends without appropriate closure to aid in the process of grieving. Juggling of multiple roles stretching everyone too thin. An endless number of decisions to be made, oftentimes without adequate information.
And we’ve been living it for more than a year.
I hear all the time that children are resilient and adapt to change without a lot of issues – or that they are too young to understand all together. While all of these things are <often> true, this is also true: children also thrive on consistency, structure, and some awareness of what to expect next.
These are the very things we are currently lacking as we continue navigating through uncertain times, abrupt changes, and isolation.
Children are often far more intuitive than we may give them credit. They pick up on and are affected by subtle changes from the norm as well as emotional responses of their caregivers (regardless of how well we think we are “hiding” it from them). Age is not a factor; from infancy to adulthood this intuition is present.
Heightened awareness of not only our own, but our children’s mental health is essential.
Response to this tricky time varies from person to person and children are no exception. Age, maturity, awareness of worldly issues, internal and external strengths and supports (as well as ability to access these supports) can all impact responses.
The timing for issues presenting can vary. While one may show immediate angst, another may take weeks or even months to display troubling behaviors. Still another may leave us concerned but wondering what is going on inside that beautiful mind because they aren’t themselves but also not exhibiting extremes in emotions or behaviors.
This simply isn’t a “one size fits all”, and to rely solely on “children are resilient”, or “they will adapt”, or “they’re too young…” rather than paying extra close attention can lead to worsening of an already unfavorable mental health condition.
In the spirit of doing the best that we can for our children, let’s be educated and on the lookout!
The following list, derived from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) breaks down symptoms commonly seen in depression, anxiety, disordered conduct and even substance use/abuse (the most common responses seen in children and teens during difficult and/or changing times):
- Emotional extremes of sadness, emptiness, helplessness, irritability, worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, worry and anger (either outwardly observed or reported by the child).
- Diminished interest or pleasure in activities previously enjoyed.
- Eating patterns change (eating more or less and possible changes in weight as a result)
- Issues with sleep, or changes in sleep patterns (trouble falling/staying asleep or wanting to sleep all the time).
- Decrease in energy and extreme fatigue are noted or reported.
- Your child is easily agitated.
- You observe a struggle with concentration and inability to pay attention.
- Aggressiveness toward people, animals or property is witnessed.
- Issues with serious rules violation (including deceitfulness, theft or property destruction)
- Use of substances begins or increases.
- Academic achievement declines.
- Regressive behaviors are present (ex: Your nine year old is suddenly behaving like a toddler: tantrums, bed-wetting or other potty accidents, etc.)
While monitoring your children’s mental health for the above symptomatology, keep in mind that there may not be an issue that requires professional intervention unless:
- Emotional responses are extreme and prolonged compared to what may be expected considering the circumstances.
- Troubling behaviors have presented that either weren’t present before circumstances changed OR have worsened with the changes.
- Several weeks have passed without additional changes and your child still doesn’t seem to be adjusting well.
Not every child and his or her family will require professional intervention but if you believe you, or your child and family could benefit from support, there’s no reason to struggle alone. A mental health professional can help give direction, make recommendations, and be a vital source of support.
They say it takes a village to raise a family. Sometimes that village includes bringing in the expertise of the professionals. Arm yourself, and your family, with some of the best resources to keep everyone happy and healthy – mind, body and soul – during this strange time full of unique struggles.
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