As students navigate through a school year unlike any other (in-person, virtual or homeschool) it is important to keep track of the mental health and well-being of children and teenagers.
As students enter a school year with different teaching styles—in-person, virtual, home school – it is important to keep track of the mental health and well-being of children and teenagers.
School closures and headlines about Coronavirus 2019-20 can create a lot of stress and anxiety, especially among children. As mental health issues grow, experts are noting an evident epidemic within a pandemic, said Maren Peterson, executive director of NAMI Fox Valley.
Peterson said one in five children will experience a significant health challenge. “In 2020, that number is going to be higher,” she added.
When schools closed during the stay-at-home order in the spring, many students felt isolated from their peers and teachers. That, along with the uncertainty of this new disease, added a level of stress many students did not know how to deal with.
Cindy Reffke, board chair of Prevent Suicide Fox Cities, said parents need to address mental health issues immediately and openly. “It is important for us as parents to make sure our children feel safe, protected,” she said.
Children might feel overwhelmed and not know how to process those feelings. It is not uncommon for children to feel sad or depressed. Peterson said parents should talk to the child about what they are feeling.
“It is important to be able to address that in a straight forward way,” said Peterson. “We all have a tendency to bottle things up somethings. This is true for children, who do not have the vocabulary. Pay attention. Be willing to have the hard conversations.”
Above all, don’t be afraid to seek out help from a teacher, school counselor, pastor or specialist in the Fox Valley.
“One thing we always talk about here is we have to break the stigma” of mental health, said Peterson. “There is no shame at all in getting the help you and your kids’ needs.”
If a child is feeling isolated and alone, get creative about ways to connect them with their peers. Platforms like Zoom are free, allowing children to connect across devices. Find a family to connect with in person, utilizing physical distancing as needed.
“The worst thing we can do is to isolate children from life,” said Reffke.
Reffke also recommends a Self-Care S.E.L.F.I.E.
- Sleep: “Get the right number of hours of sleep,” she said. “It’s really important.”
- Eating Healthy Foods: “What we put in our bodies is very important,” she said, noting youth should eat plenty of vegetables, fruit and drink enough water.
- Laugh: “Sharing a good belly laugh is really good.”
- Fun: Find fun things to do. “That is so important today with a pandemic,” she said.
- I: Encourage a child to say “I am enough.”
- Exercise: Get up and out and active.
“I think the pandemic has really encouraged us to get outside,” she said.
Peterson said the Fox Valley is rich in social services and non-profits, committed to helping children during these uncertain times.
“We are all stepping up in different ways,” she said. “We’re all missing the kind of normalcy right now. It’s multiplied for kids.”
Not all children and teens respond to stress in the same way.
Some common changes to watch for include:
- Excessive crying or irritation in younger children
- Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, toileting accidents or bedwetting)
- Excessive worry or sadness
- Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
- Irritability and “acting out” behaviors in teens
- Poor school performance or avoiding school
- Difficulties with attention and concentration
- Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
- Unexplained headaches or body pain
- Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
Ways to Support your Child
- Talk with your child about the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Answer questions and share facts about COVID-19 in a way that your child can understand.
- Reassure your child that they are safe. Let them know it is okay if they feel upset. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn from you how to cope with stress.
- Limit your family’s exposure to news coverage of the event, including social media. Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand.
- Try to keep up with regular routines. If schools are closed, create a schedule for learning activities and relaxing or fun activities.
- Be a role model. Take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and eat well. Connect with your friends and family members.
- Spending time with your child in meaningful activities, reading together, exercising, playing board games.