By Laura Ting, MD
Department of Family Practice
Reliant Medical Group
Just like adults, many children are having trouble coping with the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic. Family life has been disrupted in many ways, from a parent losing a job to children being unable to attend school on a regular basis and socialize with friends. Children process stress and anxiety differently depending on their age and stage in life. That’s why it’s important to understand the differences so you can best help them.
Children four through seven years old often show signs of regression under stress. Progress made in getting children to eat properly and go to bed on time is often lost. A child who is four might start acting more like a two-year old. Problems such as bedwetting, temper tantrums, and separation anxiety can all be a sign of stress affecting your child. For children this age, sticking to a regular schedule and familiar routines is one way to help alleviate stress. It’s important for children to know what to expect, even if their life has been drastically changed by the pandemic. Keep in mind that children this age may not always be capable of following social distancing and other guidelines properly. This means that certain activities, such as playing with friends and visiting relatives, may have to be curtailed to protect others or be closely supervised.
Children seven to 10 years old are mature enough to be more aware of the dangers that Covid-19 has caused. Children this age can easily pick up on the stress and anxiety of their parents which can exacerbate their own worries. Signs of stress in this age group can include being “snippy” or easily angered. You should also be aware that children around this age can also easily pick up misinformation from friends. That’s why it’s important to talk to kids in this age group and explain how Covid-19 spreads and how they can protect themselves. Emphasize the fact that safety measures such as social distancing help protect not just them but others too. It’s important to keep children of this age active and engaged as possible. Children seven to 10 can also benefit from relaxation techniques to help them cope with stress, including deep breathing and mindfulness.
Children 10-13 years old may not vocalize their anxiety and fears as much as younger children, but that doesn’t mean they are not being affected. It’s important to encourage this age group to talk about their fears and frustrations regarding the Covid-19 crisis. Middle school is a stressful time for children this age anyway, and the pandemic has only made it worse. Children of this age group may struggle with online learning and shouldn’t be expected to self-direct themselves – they will need a lot of guidance. Problems to watch out for include dropping grades, avoiding homework, and fights over getting school assignments done on time. Be sure to reward the efforts of children this age and let them know you appreciate them as this can make a big difference. Meditation apps such as Calm can also benefit children of this age group.
Teenagers 13-17 years old have really had their lives turned upside down due to the pandemic. Many have experienced the cancellation of important events such as their school prom, have had no school sports, been unable to perform in school plays and choirs, and lost the joy of simply being around their classmates like they used to. For this reason, it’s not surprising that many teenagers are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression because of the pandemic. Teenagers are at the point of life where they are pulling away from their parents and establishing an identity of their own. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they are spending more time isolated at home without the emotional support of their peers. It’s important for parents of teens to look for signs of a depressive mood, such as isolating themselves in their room, a change in eating and sleeping habits, and a lack of participation in activities they used to enjoy.
Parents should try to emphasize to teens that the drastic changes they have endured will not last forever. Try to encourage your teenager to stay connected with friends, even if it’s from a distance. Some things to try include a cooking session on Zoom, volunteering to help others, or just taking a walk outside while talking on the phone with friend. Remind your teen that it’s better to be safe than sorry and that after the pandemic is over they will have the rest of their life to enjoy.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever for parents to stay in touch with their pediatrician or family practitioner. Be sure not to ignore any warning signs of anxiety and depression in your children and talk to your health care provider immediately if they need help. These days, your children need you more than ever!
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