How to Prioritize Your Child’s Mental Health During the Pandemic

Parent consoling child

Growing up during a pandemic means many kids have had to deal with drastic changes in their usual lifestyle and activities. There are masks and extra handwashing, temperature checks, social distancing, virtual learning … the list seems endless. For parents, it is all that and so much more. There is concern for not only the physical health of the whole family but also their mental health.

Jody Ullom, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health Town and Country Pediatrics, offers some ideas to help families during these uncertain times. She also discusses this topic in a HealthTalks podcast.

Pediatric advice on how the experience of living through a pandemic is affecting kids.


 

“We were already seeing skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression prior to the pandemic, and this has put gasoline on it,” Dr. Ullom says. “Fortunately, I think parents are pretty aware when their kids are not doing well.”

One of the best ways to find out how your kids are doing is to just ask them, according to Dr. Ullom. She urges parents to reach out and not worry about finding the perfect words. “The only wrong way to do it is not to do it,” she says.

Keeping the lines of communication open can also help families feel more connected amid the daily stresses of work and school. However, sometimes kids find it easier to open up to someone other than a caregiver or parent. Parents can always ask their pediatrician for advice if there is a concern, or the doctor can work the topic into the child’s next exam.

“I can’t tell you how many times I get back-channeled by parents,” Dr. Ullom says. “A lot of times the parents are sort of aware that they’re not doing well, and they’re coming to me to kind of flesh it out, talk with them, and come up with some strategies.”

Teenagers are at particular risk for anxiety and depression during the pandemic, Dr. Ullom says. “[They’re] at a really important developmental milestone in their life where they’re supposed to be reaching out beyond their families, identifying their friend groups, and spending more time with others.”

Virtual learning was hard for some kids, and others thrived when school went online. In either case, going back to school in person can be stressful for kids. Parents should be on the lookout for signs of anxiety in school-aged children.

“When they went back to school in person, I had so many kids who had vomiting and nausea in the morning before going to school because they were anxious,” Dr. Ullom says.

While the current situation is affecting all families in different ways, Dr. Ullom remains confident that kids will be able to bounce back, thanks to their neuroplasticity. This means that their brains have the ability to adapt to new situations and recover from traumatic experiences. It is possible that this mental elasticity could help them grow up to be even stronger after facing the challenges of the pandemic.

“I’m not saying that people should experience trauma in order to grow,” she says, “but I think it does give them an opportunity to look at things differently and to explore how they respond to stressful situations.”

One key thing that can help alleviate some of the fears surrounding COVID-19 is to get vaccinated. With vaccines becoming available for younger children, it’s a concrete way they can reduce their risk of getting or spreading the virus.

“I think the biggest concern for most of the kids is not so much about their own health, but they’re always worried about bringing it back to their family,” Dr. Ullom says.

To learn more about mental health in children, check out “Answers to Questions About Your Child’s Mental Health.” For information about anxiety and depression in kids during the pandemic, you can also read “5 Questions: Elizabeth Reichert on Handling Back-to-School Anxiety in a Pandemic” and “Teen Mental Health During Pandemic.”

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