The coronavirus has changed daily life dramatically for millions of children across the country. Even if you live in a part of the country that hasn’t seen a lot of cases of COVID-19 — and even if you work hard to filter the news your kid sees or hears about the virus — life is different now. It’s heavy and stressful in so many ways, and more than one-third of adults say the pandemic has had a serious impact on their mental health. Even young kids pick up on that.
“This is a very stressful time,” Rachel Busman, senior director of the Child Mind Institute’s Anxiety Disorders Center, told HuffPost. “And it’s unlike anything we have ever experienced.”
But children don’t always express their emotional challenges in the ways adults expect. Here are five potential signs of distress that mental health experts say parents should be on the lookout for.
They’re snapping at you.
“Children, especially younger ones, are very intuitive and perceptive, so if the grown-ups in their lives are upset or feeling anxiety ― whether they’ve lost their job, or feel stressed or anxious due to isolation and working from home ― children will pick this up and feel it too,” said Denise Daniels, a child development expert and creator of The Moodsters, who recently authored a free workbook to help children cope with COVID-19.
Irritability can be a sign that they’re grappling with feelings of fear and anxiety, Daniels added. So if they’re snapping at you a lot more often or they’re generally kind of testy or angry, that’s something to track.
Overall, Busman emphasized that it is important for parents to tune into the frequency of behaviours. Your kid will have tough moments, hours and days — and you can expect them to feel stressed, anxious and bored, which are very normal reactions to this very abnormal situation. But if you notice more sustained changes, that’s a sign something could be really off.
If you feel like your kiddo may be struggling a bit, see if they’ll spend a few minutes listing some of the changes in their life, Daniels suggests in her COVID-19 workbook. Or see if they want to jot down (or verbally ask you) any questions they have about what’s happening in the world and their lives right now.
They’re falling back into old habits or behaviours.
“We also often see regressive behaviour, especially with young children during these times,” said Daniels.
A young child who was toilet trained might start having a lot of setbacks if they’re under significant emotional distress, Daniels said, or perhaps they’re having more tantrums than you’ve seen in a long time. They might start thumb-sucking again or, in the case of older children, start playing with toys they haven’t used in years.
Regression is a fairly common coping mechanism, mental health experts say, and it isn’t necessarily a problem — but it is a sign to pay attention. Don’t forget to gently ask little kids how they’re feeling, and to keep having those conversations and check-ins as this situation continues.
Their sleeping or eating patterns have changed.
“It’s tricky because sleep has probably already shifted a little due to the shifting nature of the schedule,” Busman said. “However, if your child or teen is sleeping way more than usual or way less than usual, dig deeper.”
Are they staying up later than usual because they’re anxious and unable to shut off their thoughts? Are they suddenly sleeping a whole lot more than before? These are changes to be mindful of.
Likewise, pay attention to alterations in their appetite. Are they eating more? Eating less? Suddenly being really picky? If you have any concerns, consider calling your kid’s pediatrician.
They’re overdoing the screen time.
Your kiddo may be getting a lot more screen time these days than they’re accustomed to, and that’s not only OK ― it’s a matter of sanity and survival, really.
And yet! If your kid is using screens as a way to emotionally withdraw, that could be a sign that they’re having a tough time coping.
“When a child or teen really removes themselves — isolates — we want to look into that,” Busman said. “Is your child rejecting opportunities to interact within the family? Are they interacting with friends, via Zoom or other hangouts?”
Your job as a parent is to really try to tune into how your kid is using screens. Is it to relax? Have fun? Or simply fill some time during the day? Or is it more because they’re searching for ways to emotionally retreat and check out?
If they make it clear they need a place where they can be alone, Daniels’ workbook suggests maybe creating a “calming corner,” filled with things like squeeze balls, a journal or a pinwheel that kids can use to facilitate long, soothing breaths. And then help them stay connected socially by using technology to connect with peers and loved ones, maybe by asking a grandparent or other family member to read a bedtime story to younger kids.
They’re clinging to you a lot — even though you may be spending a lot more time together.
Clinginess is another common — but often overlooked — sign that your child is grappling with feelings of frustration, stress or sadness, according to Daniels. Do they not want you to leave their side? Even if you guys are spending way more time together than you usually do? They may be looking for some help managing really tricky emotions.
Give them practical ways to release their emotions, like dancing, doing something nice for a loved one or crying when they feel the need.
“This is a great time for parents to not only emotionally connect with their children but also model healthy behaviour,” Daniels said. Do you have good coping strategies that you turn to, like meditation or yoga? Maybe consider teaching some of your preferred methods to your kiddo.
Then remember this good news: “Kids, in general, are resilient,” Busman said. “This means that kids often do well even during times of stress with the right kind of support.”