Pediatrician’s Tips for Kids’ & Teens’ Mental Health During Coronavirus Pandemic
Keep your kids from feeling anxious or depressed while socially distancing. Here’s how.
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
You can also listen to this article as a podcast on your favorite podcast app or click on the player below:
So I’m the pediatrician who wrote that viral article discouraging playdates during the coronavirus pandemic.
And while I’m glad the message got out—over 2 million people read that article—it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write.
Because even though I know that such extreme social distancing is absolutely necessary to slow the spread of this sneaky virus, I also know that isolating ourselves from each other can have a massive toll on mental health.
And I’ve seen that toll already. As I write this now, schools in my area have been closed for only a week, and yet my pediatric office has been flooded with calls from parents worried that their kids are becoming depressed.
The risk for anxiety and depression amongst our kids and teens—and amongst ourselves—is real, and that risk will be compounded as the need for physical distancing inevitably stretches to several weeks more.
So these are my recommendations for parents to help bolster the mental health of their kids and teens in the midst of this pandemic. You may find them helpful for yourself, as well.
LIMIT NEWS AND SOCIAL MEDIA TIME
With information about recommendations and local requirements changing and updating on a near-daily basis, it’s important that we all stay informed. But at the moment, my own social media feeds consist almost entirely of coronavirus posts—and I bet yours and your teens’ are the same (I fully recognize the irony that you probably found this article via social media!).
Too much exposure to these discussions can provoke anxiety—giving the impression that it’s the only thing happening right now. And while the COVID-19 response is the most important societal thing happening in the world, there are so many other things that we can focus on from moment to moment—books to read, movies to watch, games to play with family, things to learn.
While the pandemic and our distancing are unavoidably pervasive, we get to choose what to focus on. Scheduling social media or news checks, or at least limiting them to a few times a day, can allow your child or teen to focus on other, less anxiety-provoking parts of their current lives.
CREATE A SCHEDULE
Listen, I know we all have lofty ideals for how much virtual schoolwork and learning we’d like our kids to be doing right now. But of course, when you’re teleworking and the kids are in their comfortable home environment with distractions just feet away, it’s hard to fully meet those lofty ideals.
But the learning isn’t the only thing our kids are missing when they’re out of school—they’re also missing routine. Listeners of my podcast have often heard me say that both kids and adults thrive on structure—and that even though many adults like to think we’re spontaneous, I’m willing to bet that your morning, lunchtime, and bedtime activities follow the same patterns most days.
The knowledge of what’s coming each day—get ready for school, walk to school with friends, classes and lunch in a certain order, etc.—and the accomplishment of those expectations provides a mental calm to most kids and teens. That’s part of why kids’ behavior is so out of whack when there’s a substitute teacher—the expectation was changed. Right now? You’re the substitute teacher. Not only that, there are no bells telling kids to move from class to class, nor any of the other classroom routines teachers have spent three quarters of the year establishing for your kids.
So come up with a daily schedule for your kids—better still, come up with it together. We’re in unusual times right now, so of course there will need to be some leeway and flexibility each day—don’t let sticking to schedules create stress or fights at home. But giving your kids clear patterns to expect every day can help provide some mental comfort and stability in the days and weeks ahead.
SCHEDULE VIDEO CHATS WITH FRIENDS
One of the most important routines kids learn to expect each day is that they’ll see their friends at school. This social interaction is the biggest, most devastating victim of the physical distancing that’s so necessary to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Have your teen schedule daily or every-other-day video chats with her friends. You can schedule the same for your younger kids. While your child can, of course, call or text a friend at any time, having something scheduled and routine gives him something positive to look forward to each day. My kids and their friends have been thrilled to see each other over FaceTime this past week, and I know that these chats will keep their friendships strong and help to keep my kids joyful.
EXERCISE & MEDITATE
I don’t need to tell you that exercising and fresh air are crucial to mental health—these are facts we all know, whether we use them or not. But right now, these are more important than ever.
Keeping your family moving and breathing will be one of the most effective ways to maintain strong, healthy bodies and spirits. Go for bike rides. Do a YouTube yoga video. Dust off that old T-25 exercise video you haven’t used in years—your kids can work out with you. And if you haven’t already, now is the time to learn how to meditate (and I’ve made this video and this video to help your kids learn, too!).
POINT OUT THE POSITIVE
I was half-joking with a colleague the other day when I said that if I were in high school and stuck home right now, I’d dive into practicing my guitar and making movies. I would love to have more time to dig into hobbies that turn me on, but that often get put off for things that that “need” to get done instead.
While it’s true that there are plenty of negatives to being stuck at home right now, there are positives, as well. The strongest—this is a perfect time for your kid to more deeply explore whatever her heart desires!
As I’m writing this, my son is in the family room learning magic from Penn & Teller on MasterClass. My wife and daughter are in the dining room learning to crochet. The kids have been filming their own news show to share with their friends every couple of days.
There have been plenty of great posts online linking all of the free virtual museum tours, college classes, and other online learning that’s available right now. If there’s something your kid or teen has always dreamed of exploring, now is the time to do it!
BUT DON’T BRUSH ASIDE THE NEGATIVE
Look, this is a stressful time—for everyone. Even the brightest, most optimistic person you know is going to feel the weight of physical distancing and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
When your child or teen opens up and shares his feelings with you, don’t immediately turn the conversation to something positive. It’s important that you first acknowledge his feelings—“I know,” “It is really hard right now”—and then talk about what’s happening in age-appropriate terms. Let your child know that there are thousands of people working on this problem right now, trying to come up with a way to fix it and help things get back to normal. Let him know that the frequent handwashing and physical distancing that your family is practicing is helping to keep everyone healthy. And let him know that “this too shall pass”—that this is a new normal for now, but not forever.
If you need to know how to craft age-appropriate responses, parenting expert Alyson Schafer has been doing a great job sharing tips via live videos on her Facebook page, and I’ll be offering insights on my Facebook and Instagram as they come.
KNOW THAT THERE IS HELP
In what might be one of the best unexpected turns of events resulting from this pandemic, your ability to reach out to a medical professional has actually increased because we’re all ramping up our ability to use telemedicine. This is true in the mental health world, as well. The majority of therapists and psychologists I know are now offering video appointments to help parents, kids, and teens manage the emotional challenges of our current situation.
If you’ve already worked with a mental health professional, check in with them now to see what resources they have to offer your family in this time of need. And if you’ve never seen a therapist or psychologist before, reach out to your pediatrician—they’ll have a list of mental health professionals they trust.
I recently shared to my social media followers that I usually turn to music whenever I need to lift my soul. In fact, my family has had to listen to me belting at the top of my lungs a bit more than usual these last several days. And this particular U2 lyric has been stuck in my head:
And if the darkness is to keep us apart
And if the daylight feels like it’s a long way off
And if your glass heart should crack
And for a second you turn back
Oh no, be strong
This pandemic is terrible on so many levels. But there’s beauty in it, too, as we’ve all been reminded how much we mean to each other.
By sticking together even as we isolate, by checking in and making sure every person in our lives is handling this okay, we will walk on through this together—even if we’re three to six feet apart.
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a pediatrician, dad, and host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast. He’s certain his kids will someday thank him for all the U2 lyrics he quotes.
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- Akashic Records – Motivation