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How To Recognize Mental Health Decline In Your Kids, From A Psychotherapist

Mother Taking Care Of Her Child
Image by Stereo Shot / Stocksy
September 29, 2020

The pandemic has had a profound physical and mental health impact on people around the world. There are many reports of increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation. While a lot of research has focused on the impact COVID-19 is having on adults, parents need to remember that their children's mental health is also vulnerable. The pandemic is affecting children in many ways similarly to adults, and in some ways, children are feeling the impact even more than their parents. 

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Just like adults, children are coping with canceled events and an abrupt shift from what is considered normal life.

However, children thrive on schedules. They like routine and predictability. Depending on their age, it can be more difficult for them to understand why there is either no schedule that involves leaving the house anymore or why that schedule is constantly changing due to a hybrid in-person and virtual school model.

For older children, not being able to experience major milestones such as high school sports, graduations, school dances, and other cultural rites of passage can also be hard to overcome. Even if teens say they are fine and seem like they are acting normal at the time they miss out on these events, the grief of the loss could surface later. 

In addition to age, the impact is also dependent on their personalities. Children who are more introverted and who are shy may be thriving spending more time at home and learning online. Children who have an extroverted personality, on the other hand, are likely missing the ability to socialize with their peers, work in teams, and feed off one another's energy.

The fact that a child is more introverted does not mean that being isolated at home in an environment that is comfortable is good for their development, either. Not having situations where they must socialize could make it more challenging for introverted children to learn or utilize the problem-solving, creativity, and navigating social relationship skills that they would have learned and practiced at school.

Identifying signs that children are struggling with mental health can be a challenge for parents because it can manifest in many ways.

There is no one-size-fits-all diagnosis, and if parents are also experiencing anxiety or depression, that can complicate identifying children's feelings even more. Generally speaking, however, there are some common signs that children are not coping well, and what parents definitely need to know is that there are ways they can help their children through these challenging times. 

Some of the signs that children may exhibit that could indicate they are having mental health issues include: 

  1. Changed or bad sleep habits: Pay attention to how your children are sleeping. Note if they are not sleeping through the night or are having a hard time falling asleep.
  2. Physical complaints: Children who are experiencing mental health problems may actually be complaining of physical symptoms such as their head hurting or their stomach hurting. 
  3. Dietary changes: Suddenly having a loss of appetite or other changes with their eating patterns out of the blue could also indicate that children are struggling. 
  4. Mood swings: If children start having behavioral or emotional outbursts, become easily upset and frustrated, or are having meltdowns over minor situations, it should not just be blamed on age, hormones, or gender. It could be a call for help.
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All parents should know that the extreme circumstances of living through the pandemic as a child or teen could affect their mental health. And just like if their children became physically sick with the flu or COVID, parents can seek professional support. Parents should not feel like they have to be mental health experts and help their children on their own. If children exhibit any signs that they may be having mental health problems, parents can:

  • Talk about it: Having open and honest conversations with children to try to uncover what is upsetting them, whether it is school, home, friends, etc. Remember to remain calm and ask how you as parents can help.
  • Rely on school: Ask if their children's school has a school counselor or school psychologist to help teach children coping strategies.
  • Ask a pro: If the problems children are exhibiting last more than two weeks, seek professional help so children can learn strategies and coping skills that can benefit their mental health now and into adulthood.

Most importantly, remember that this has been a trying year for many people. It is normal for everyone to be experiencing anxiety, increased stress, and even grief. The best thing that parents can do for their children to help them cope now and in the future is to talk about the challenges, disappointments, sadness, and other feelings; otherwise, children can feel even more isolated.

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Annette Nunez, M.S., Ph.D.
Annette Nunez, M.S., Ph.D.
Contributing writer

Annette Nunez, Ph.D., is the founder and director of Breakthrough Interventions, LLC. She is a licensed psychotherapist and has worked with children with ASD and other related disorders for over 22 years. She received a B.A. in Psychology, an M.S. in Marriage and Family Therapy and a Ph.D. in Quantitative Research Methods with a specialization in Child Development. At UCLA, she studied and trained with renowned autism expert, Dr. Ivar Lovaas in Discrete Trial Training (DTT). She also received training from the Institute for Child Development in California on the Floortime Approach and developed a successful behavioral program that combined aspects of DTT and Floortime.