Story by Angela Covo
For nearly a year, adults have coped with the fears and lifestyle changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, but how are kids handling the new normal?
Constantly stressing about COVID-19, lockdowns and economic strife isn’t exclusive to grown-ups, experts said. As youngsters learn to deal with the yo-yo of virtual instruction or classroom environs, staying home, not seeing friends or relatives, and fear of illness, local professionals are working to help families confront the emotional toll.
Before the crisis, 1 in 6 children faced mental-health challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, professionals estimate the ratio is closer to 1 in 5.
According to Dr. Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy, child psychiatrist and assistant professor at UT Health San Antonio, national statistics also indicate an increase in emergency-room visits for mental health.
“It’s important to differentiate mental health, or well-being in general, from mental illness,” she said. “Especially now, all of us have to engage in sustaining our mental health.”
Getting enough sleep — especially kids — is at the top of the list, plus limiting social media and screen time for children and at least 15 minutes of daily physical activity.
“Kids need to use their bodies,” she said. “Get outside, take a walk.”
Many youths she sees worry about finances. Parents try to protect their offspring by not openly discussing money issues, but this sometimes creates more stress.
in Your Child
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’ve outgrown (for example, bed-wetting).
• 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.
• Avoiding activities enjoyed in the past.
• Unexplained headaches or body pain.
• Use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.
“Children are very perceptive and it’s more helpful to incorporate them into problem-solving,” she said. “They need to feel needed and useful, so make sure to find ways for them to help.”
Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance from professionals, she said.
“There is no shame in getting help. This is an important skill we want to model for our kids. They are watching us and learning from us about how to deal with stress,” she added.
Camillia McKinney, chief operating officer of Laurel Ridge Treatment Center, which provides specialized behavioral-health care and addiction treatment, agrees.
“Always ask for help if you aren’t sure,” she said. “No one could have prepared for this (pandemic). Parents are doing the best they can.”
McKinney said some coping mechanisms kids normally use temporarily are gone.
“There is no replacement for social interaction. Resources like church or even group therapy are not as accessible now, and for many kids, figuring out your role in society depends on that sense of belonging,” she said.
Also, creative approaches are key to keeping youths engaged.
“There’s no such thing as normal. Kids can hide their issues, so it’s important to notice variances in your child’s reactions, especially not doing something they usually do,” she added.
Children often have different needs, said Jessica Knudsen, CEO of Clarity Child Guidance Center, a nonprofit mental-health institution.
Clarity has a 66-bed inpatient unit and a day program dedicated exclusively to those ages 3 to 17.
“When it comes to figuring out if your kid is in crisis, there’s no one-size-fits-all during this pandemic,” Knudsen said.
Particular attention is needed to changes in youngsters’ behavior. Pandemic fatigue is challenging, she added.
Plus, restricting students to virtual learning during the outbreak may adversely impact some, said Sarah Baray, CEO for Pre-K 4 SA.
Nine-tenths of the brain’s structure forms in the first five years.
“Kids do best in the classroom with highly skilled teachers. … It’s not good to miss this period of brain development,” she said.
Coronavirus fears have already caused a 30% decrease in the city-based program’s peak enrollment.
“Young children do best with predictable routines and schedules, and one of the greatest challenges is that the pandemic upended all that,” Baray added. “Everything has been retrofitted to take every precaution and schools are open and waiting – young children benefit from every moment of instruction.”
To counter rising anxiety and depression in adolescents during the pandemic, city officials dedicated $256,000 for another vehicle to help kids ages 11 to 17 combat stress with help from their peers.
Labeled Project YES, or Youth Empowerment and Support, it’s run by Stony Brook University scientists who’ll partner with UT Teen Health to expand the exercise.
Dr. Kristen Plastino, program director of UT Teen Health at UT Health San Antonio, is hopeful Project YES can help fill gaps.
“The most common referrals we’ve been seeing are for mental health and access to care, and while not the ultimate cure, this is another piece of the puzzle,” Plastino said. “We keep uncovering tools and seeking different avenues to help our youth.”
Teens can try three different single-session experiences online anonymously and voluntarily.
Each activity allows kids to learn different ways to think about and cope with everyday problems. Then, they can share their best advice with others who may be struggling, based on what they learned in the activity. If kids agree to share, their advice will be posted on the Project YES website for others to read.
Jennifer Todd, program manager at UT Teen Health, said the San Antonio version of Project YES would be launched via social media this spring. She’s looking for 3,000 teenage participants.
“In San Antonio, we are recruiting Latinx youth and youth of color to make sure everyone is represented,” Todd said.
For more on Project YES, visit UT Teen Health on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
Also, prepared by the CDC, visit https://bit.ly/CDCKIT for the “COVID-19 Parental Resources Kit: Ensuring Children and Young People’s Social, Emotional, and Mental Well-Being.”