With remote learning, mask wearing, social distancing and all the other rules we’ve had to deal with since COVID, there’s plenty of anxiety to go around. So, how do you know if your child really is doing okay or if that recent meltdown means he or she isn’t managing well? “It’s fine for your kid to have occasional outbursts of anger or episodes of sadness. These are tough times,” says Dr. Muhammad Zeshan, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “But if he or she still is able to enjoy the same activities, video games, toys and foods they’ve always loved, and if they’re still eating and sleeping okay, your child is coping fine.”
Here are a few other tips for keeping tabs on your child’s mental health:
WATCH FOR SIGNS YOUR KID IS STRESSED
Toddlers express anxiety in subtle ways, says Zeshan. Overall, they become more demanding. They may start thumb sucking again, regress on toilet training or ask you to stay with them at bedtime when they previously had been going to sleep fine on their own. Older kids ages 5 and up and teens may be more clingy, irritable or sad or have outbursts triggered by incidents like not being able to go to a party, play sports or hang out with friends. The lack of structure also affects sleep, and kids may not sleep well or start having nightmares.
TALK TO YOUR KIDS
When your kid is upset, try to stay calm. Naturally, that’s easier said than done. But by taking a few deep breaths before jumping in and reacting emotionally, you’ll activate the thinking part of your brain, says Zeshan. This helps your child bridge the gap between being upset and being calm. Instead of showing your own distress which may escalate tension, validate what your child is feeling by saying something like, ‘You seem sad or angry.’ “It’s helpful to pin down the feeling,” says Zeshan. “We like to say, ‘name the emotion to tame the emotion.’”
EXPLORE SOLUTIONS TOGETHER
“As parents, we often want to jump in and fix things,” says Zeshan. “But there’s a way to be more supportive and helpful.” After you help your child identify his feelings, ask him to tell you what’s going on in his own words. That in turn helps your child slow down and activate his or her thinking brain. Then talk about what he or she might be able to do to feel better. For example, make sure everyone (you included!) is getting enough sleep and plenty of outdoor time, which studies have shown helps improve mood.
REFLECT ON WHAT WORKED
After you’ve talked, make a mental note of what helped—or didn’t. But most of all, cut yourself some slack. “Parenting is messy,” says Zeshan. “There’s no ideal parent, so be kind to yourself. Research shows that as long as ‘repair’ is happening in a relationship, that is, your child gets angry and then gets over it, that’s a normal part of development.”
WATCH FOR RED FLAGS
There are a few warning signs that you should call your pediatrician about. For kids younger than five, you may need help if he or she is constantly not sleeping, having nightmares repeatedly or has stopped eating or going to the bathroom. For older kids, look for signs they’ve lost interest in activities they once enjoyed or if they aren’t able to function throughout the day. If teens are experiencing anger and irritability to the point of destruction of property or physical altercations, it’s time to get help.
The bottom line is you know your kid; if you have doubts, reach out to your child’s doctor right away.
WHERE TO GET HELP
These sites can help you and your child navigate the stress of these difficult times: