Managing Pandemic Stress
By Randall Ricardi, DO & Funda Bachini, MD
There’s no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic is stressful for parents. But have you considered how the unprecedented uncertainty is impacting your children?
The pandemic has changed every aspect of kids’ lives. They’re no longer able to visit with most friends and family; daily routines have been upended; clubs, in-person sports and after-school activities have been canceled, and it seems as though the news becomes more dire by the day.
Signs and symptoms of stress in kids
It’s no surprise that pediatric and mental health professionals have seen a rise in behavioral health issues. But stress manifests differently in youth than in adults, which can make it harder for parents to spot. Here are some symptoms to watch for:
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Intrusive negative thoughts about health and well-being
- Separation anxiety, or worry about leaving the home
- Disinterest in activities that used to be enjoyable
- Developmental regression in skills like toilet training
- Becoming quick to cry
- Stomach aches or gastrointestinal upset
- Headaches or other aches and pains
Any ongoing symptoms or other concerning physical health issues could be a signal that something is off with your little ones. Their mental health is largely built on relationships, which have been interrupted by the pandemic. While teenagers are adept at socializing virtually, it’s not as effective for younger children, who are still learning to read nonverbal cues, socialize and work with peers and more. And it’s hard to make friends in a Zoom-centric world, for kids at any age.
Tips to improve your child’s mental health
Mental health problems are not inevitable – even amid this pandemic. Here are five ways to maintain well-being right now:
- Manage your day, as much as is realistic. Children thrive with consistency and routine, but it’s up to parents to set the tone. A predicable daily schedule will help youth manage their anxieties and address new challenges. It might not be feasible to maintain the same strict pattern every day, but try to establish sleep and eating schedules that are consistent. When things don’t go to plan, be okay with that. This can help model that even when things don’t go exactly as planned, it’s alright.
- Talk to your kids about what’s going on. Sweeping stressors under the rug may seem easier in the moment, but this won’t prove beneficial in the long run. Ask them how they’re feeling and encourage your children to share their feelings, no matter what they are. Validate their response and let them know it’s okay to feel the way they do. Then discuss ways that you can move forward together in a positive way.
- Identify healthy outlets for your kids. They’re missing out on a lot, but there are still fun, educational activities to pursue. Schedule daily quality time with your kids, whether that’s story time, mealtime or some other activity you can enjoy together. For example, reading stories together can have a wide variety of benefits, from bonding and improving literacy to building resiliency in your child. Many children’s books tell stories of characters who overcome challenges or solve problems, which can be a great model for young minds. Physical activity is also a great way to reduce stress. Helping with pets, dressing for school, mealtime routines and having some age-appropriate responsibility around the house are helpful. Also important, parents should continue to monitor social media use.
- Manage your own stress levels. Children are incredibly sensitive to the moods of those around them. When their caregivers are anxious, they will be, too. Find ways to keep your own mind and body healthy and that positive change will rub off on your kids.
- Seek professional help when it’s needed. Behavioral health specialists often seen a rise in visits when a new school year starts, but this year is more significant. Some youth are more prone to behavioral health issues when they’re stressed, and your pediatrician can provide guidance on how best to respond. If your child exhibits expressions of hopelessness or self-harm, uncontrolled aggression, or if your typical parental interventions aren’t helping, set up an appointment right away. If your child is suicidal, take them immediately to the emergency department.
Randall Ricardi, DO, is the chief of psychiatry at Phoenix Children’s. Funda Bachini, MD, is a mother of three and the medical director of the Child Inpatient Unit at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Together, they have a combined 45 years of experience in pediatric behavioral health.