Fun: Children need to have fun to stay resilient, active, engaged, and hopeful. From a child’s perspective, daily fun is essential. Craft structured or spontaneous daily fun activities with the family, a few trusted friends, and teachers to re-invigorate your children with enthusiasm and laughter. Treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, balloon tosses, slip and slides, sprinklers, magic and talent shows, and costume parties are simple but fun ways to breathe life back into kids. For teenagers, support their small social circles, their romantic relationships, safe outdoor sports such as surfing, running, hiking, and camping to gradually re-infuse them with motivation and engagement. If adolescents are connected, motivated, and engaged in fun activities, they are far less likely to use substances or self-harm to escape and cope with their depression and helplessness.
Creativity: Facilitate creative daily projects that allow children to use their imagination. Arts, crafts, mechanics, woodwork, building computers and cars, gardening, magic kits, water play, costumes, sewing, and culinary arts are all good choices to offer your child. Create long lists of options, and create spaces in your garage, bathrooms, kitchens, and backyards for your children to immerse themselves in creative play. For instance, I had one client whose parents described their daughter as a “ghost of a child”; severely depressed and disengaged, she refused to leave the house for days. The parents thought out-of-the-box and had her collect tadpoles from a nearby lagoon. She built “ponds” for them in the backyard to watch them grow into frogs. The child was overjoyed and spent delightful hours with her “new friends.” Creativity is the source of light and joy and can be incredibly therapeutic for children and adolescents.
Hope: It is very important for children to have hope; to look forward to something extraordinary, meaningful, and super-exciting. This can be an effective way to help get their minds out of the fog isolation has brought on and into thoughts of the future. Planning future vacations, visits with family and friends, weekend trips, important events (birthdays, anniversaries, future graduations), can create a sense of movement and the realization that one day, the mundane life of daily chores and online school will come to an end.
Withdrawing to their dark rooms. Being sad and tearful. Refusing to participate in online school meetings. Avoiding and neglecting schoolwork. Spending endless hours alone on social media and watching Netflix and YouTube. Living “vampire lives”—sleeping all day and staying up all night. Being oppositional, irritable, and angry.Being “bored,” disinterested, and disengaged. Refusing to exercise.Using vaping and marijuana to numb themselves. Cutting and scratching their bodies in self-harm. Texting self-loathing or suicidal messages to friends and family.
- Changes in Appetite: Both overeating or undereating can be signs children are using food as a coping mechanism for overwhelming emotions. Monitor changes in weight and be mindful not to shame or judge a child for weight changes. Instead, take notice of how well clothes are fitting and the amount of food consumed.
- Changes in Sleep Patterns or Behaviors: Do you notice your child needing more sleep or less sleep? Are they having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep? Is your child afraid to go to bed? Are they having scary or upsetting dreams?
- Emotions and Moods Are Stressful and Intensified: During the pandemic, children are experiencing emotions (sadness, worry, fear, irritability, anger, embarrassment, shame, disgust, etc.) more intensely and frequently. Children and teens who are emotionally distressed often appear as behaviorally defiant, not adhering to rules and expectations of reasonable tasks. Be mindful not to label all of these behaviors as defiance, as children and teens express what they’re feeling through behaviors.
- Loss of Interest in Activities Once Enjoyed: When children are distressed, they show us by withdrawing from participating or engaging in activities they once enjoyed. That can mean a loss of interest in playing with favorite toys, crafting/drawing/painting, sports, and choosing to do passive activities during unstructured time such as playing video games or watching movies, etc.
- Social Withdrawal: Circumstances related to the pandemic including social distancing, isolation and a change in routine are causing kids and teens to experience loneliness. However, when a child has lost interest in interacting with peers, even in ways that are possible given the circumstances, it’s a sign something more may be going on.
- Negative Self-Talk: Pay attention to the ways your child speaks to themselves when they’re frustrated, upset or faced with disappointment. Self-talk verbally expressed out loud or to oneself with themes of low self-esteem or self-worth such as, “I’m not good at anything,” or, “I’m so stupid, I hate myself,” are some red flags that emotional distress is present.
- Expressed Hopelessness: Pay attention to thoughts and beliefs your child has about the future. Does your child have a sense of hopelessness about the future? Does your child make statements about not knowing the point to life, or not wanting to live, and make statements of wanting to harm themselves, with gestures and a plan to do so? These are concerns that must be addressed immediately.
- Worry and Anxiety in New Situations: The pandemic has created protocols to be mindful of keeping ourselves and others safe. For some kids and teens, the sense of danger goes beyond what is expected. This is often expressed by feeling anxious in public, not wanting to go out or leave the house or expressing the danger in the world and social spaces disproportionate to actual risks.
It’s been a tough year for everyone, but especially for kids. One recent study shows alarming increases in both depression and anxiety in children and adolescents across the globe. In the spring of 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of a massive surge in mental health issues in the coming months, with mental health-related visits for children ages 5-11 and 12-17 years increasing approximately 24 percent and 31 percent as compared to 2019.
Let’s leave 2020 behind and look forward to 2021!