I am hearing more and more stories from parents about rising anxiety and depression in our children. Most of the reports are anecdotal, but many of us seem to have children struggling with these effects of the coronavirus restrictions. Closer to home, 30% of parents participating in a May 2020 Gallup poll reported harm to their child’s emotional or mental health. These problems come on top of already rising rates of teen suicide.
Helping a child struggling with anxiety and/or depression is extremely difficult. Sometimes it seems to me that my children have deliberately dug themselves into a pit and then challenged me to try to pull them out. I have to keep reminding myself that most of the problem is not within their control, or at least not yet within their control. Sometimes I do not recognize that their behavior is not just obnoxious, but part of a mental health issue. Anxiety and depression present in different ways, and children will not always be able to identify what they are feeling at any given point in time. It will be our job to help them figure it out.
A first step is to find whatever resources we need to handle our own stress. Then we will be able to start helping our children. We can find help from sources such as the ADAA and American Academy of Pediatrics websites. One technique that I have found helpful was pioneered at the Yale Child Study Center. It teaches parents to encourage children rather than protect them from anxiety triggers. Sometimes the best thing we can tell our children is, “I know that this is hard for you. But I have faith that you can make it through this challenge.”
Outdoor exercise is more important than ever before. Exercise is proven to help with depression and anxiety, and outdoor activities are safer than indoor in terms of spreading coronavirus.
One surprising discovery is that online activities may help more than hurt children. Older studies emphasized the dangers of allowing children to spend too much time online. More recent studies, however, indicate that activities that create communities, such as online gaming, decrease loneliness and help children whether the coronavirus restrictions. Even much-maligned social media may not increase depression, and one study claims that toddlers who use electronics develop longer attention spans. Of course, we have to be alert to bullying, online predators and other risks, but virtual communities may be stronger and more positive for our children than we realize.
Nothing about a pandemic is easy, and children have fewer resources than adults for dealing with it. Helping our children deal with their anxiety and stress is difficult, and sometimes it seems that they will never find their way out of the pit that they’ve dug themselves into. We can learn techniques to help them, renew our resources, and find the stamina to not give up on them. There is no magic cure, but with time and patience, they can find their way out.