Signs of Struggle

signs of struggle

Even as progress is made vanquishing the COVID-19 pandemic, many kids are still battling anxiety and depression. Learn the signs that your child may be struggling and how to help.

By Deborah Skolnik

Many kids have returned to in-person learning for the current academic year. Yet, some are still dealing with psychological fallout from the pandemic and facing the future with anxiety. These feelings come as no surprise, says Abraham Bartell, MD, Associate Director of Psychiatry and Division Chief for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital.

The ‘going to school’ and ‘having fun’ parts of their lives have been completely turned upside down and inside out,” Dr. Bartell explains. “We are all creatures of habit. Kids are even more vulnerable to alterations or changes in those routines, and they’re more sensitive to them.” If a child had a pre-existing medical or mental health condition or other stresses, the effects of the pandemic on their outlook and behavior can be even more profound, even as conditions improve. During the winter, as outdoor activities that do not require masks become more difficult, kids may feel anxiety intensifying.

“The ‘going to school’ and ‘having fun’ parts of their lives have been completely turned upside down and inside out.”
— Abraham Bartell, MD

Dr. Bartell recommends watching for these signs that your child may be struggling:

Sadness. Older kids, especially, may feel like they’re not supposed to be happy during a pandemic, when so many others have suffered. “They may have trouble feeling positive emotions, because, internally, they’re struggling with Is it okay? Am I allowed?

Irritability, including a short fuse and a low tolerance for frustration.

Social withdrawal or isolation. Is your child not as interested in spending time with friends and family? It may be time to dig a little deeper into his overall state of mind.

Interrupted sleep. Kids may have difficulty drifting off, then may end up sleeping later than usual but still not feel refreshed when they wake up.

Changes in appetite. Just as adults sometimes eat more or less when we’re upset, the same holds true for many children.

Dr. Bartell has some valuable tips to help ease your children into the “new normal,” including:

Be very clear about when to wear a mask and wash hands.

Young kids, especially, are very concrete thinkers. Establishing hygiene rules will reduce their confusion and anxiety about how to minimize their chances of infection. With the return to indoor activities amid colder weather, remember to revisit these whether or not your child has been vaccinated.

Set your kids’ expectations for the “new normal.”

Older children may remember the way things were pre-pandemic and assume our post-COVID lives will be identical. Explain that certain habits, such as hugging friends and gathering in large groups without masks, may be slow to make a comeback. But also talk about the great things many of us are finally able to do again. If you sense your kids feeling anxious with the onset of a runny nose or cough, stay calm and get a COVID test, then respond appropriately. There is no need to overreact to the common cold or flu.

Get everyone on a schedule.

Structure is good for children. Even if a quarantine period had your family staying in their pajamas until 4 p.m., now’s the time to make sure everyone gets dressed each morning and eats their meals at roughly the same hour each day.

Start cutting back on screen time whenever possible.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s really important,” Dr. Bartell says. We’ve become more reliant than ever on tech during the pandemic, but kids need unstructured, unplugged leisure time and time to play and socialize with friends.

Take good care of yourself.

You are your child’s role model. So eat right, exercise, connect with some form of spirituality and don’t be a “Zoom zombie.” By setting a good example, you can help your child cope with COVID chaos and thrive far into the future.