As normally undemanding tasks (like buying toilet paper) begin to resemble the Hunger Games, businesses shutter, and cities move to ordering home confinement, let’s not forget about the kids. While some may be trapped in violent households, other kids face a different kind of danger. These kids are quietly suffering with untreated depression or poor mental health.
Being a parent for nearly a decade now, I too am overwhelmed by the endless parenting guidance I’ve received from my “village”. As parents, we are now charged with safeguarding our family’s health, putting food on the table, juggling virtual work with “homeschooling,” and weathering collapsing markets. But to that list, I must add: kids’ mental health, because they aren’t going to magically be okay, even when coronavirus declines and restrictions loosen. If you have it rough, they have it rougher.
Overnight, children across the nation went from highly routinized schedules with ample opportunities for interaction with peers and teachers, to a world of social distancing. While initially students may have been elated for this extended vacation, the materiality of school closures looks more like being grounded indefinitely.
Social distancing implies no playdates, no playgrounds, no birthday parties, and limited social contact with family. Not being in school may also mean reduced access to nutritious food, limited access to technology and internet, inadequate supervision, and academic challenges. For many, this new reality also signifies limited or absent services, like counseling, typically received at school. How do these kids maintain their mental health amidst crisis, uncertainty, and fear, and cope with their not-so-brave-new-world?
Healthy, productive coping mechanisms are demanding, even for adults. It’s a skill that kids acquire (hopefully) as they mature and practice it. But the stakes are higher now, and the timeline shorter. For younger children, without existent networks on social media, social distance IS social isolation. Sure, adolescents may have other ways to keep in touch (FaceTime, Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram), but even in their virtually-bound worlds, managing emotions, remaining connected, and maintaining meaningful relationships is complicated.
We hear a lot about fostering grit/resilience in children. What if they don’t have it yet? Kids now spend countless hours cooped up in their own homes dealing with their own stress, along with that of their parents. Add loneliness and “grounding” to these preexisting developmental and mental health issues, and the need for virtual counseling and mental health professionals to address our children’s challenges is dire and profound.
As I struggle to explain to my child with anxiety why life changed drastically, his apprehension is palpable, even with age-appropriate explanations. So, while advice for parents may be warranted, let’s not forget about the tools and strategies for kids themselves, many of which parents alone cannot provide. Parents and other family members CAN model self-care, meditation, and provide structure at home. Parents CAN limit the amount of pandemic-related media children are exposed to each day, while simultaneously encouraging them to reach out to their friends, mentors, and other family members online. If youth at home normally receive behavioral therapy, parents CAN adopt many of these techniques within the home. And, parents CAN learn to identify signs of declining mental health. So, talk to your kids, reach out to other people’s kids (virtually of course), and open up a dialogue that encourages the expression of emotion.
While face-to-face options for psychological and psychiatric intervention may be limited in your area, there are telehealth options, crisis hotlines, and school-based resources available to children and parents – all accessible virtually. Especially for young people experiencing a mental health emergency, there are resources. You can contact children’s teachers, mental health professionals, mentors, and members of your “village”. And if you don’t have a village? Reach out to schools in your area to identify programs in your school – or area more broadly – that remain operational. Most importantly, seek out professional intervention if kids’ “extended vacation” starts to look more like the crisis you already know it is. When the dust has settled, and we return to another new normal, they will thank us for it.
President & CEO, Communities In Schools of the Dallas Region (CISDR)