2020 has been one of the hardest years we have had to face as a human race, a country, a community, and as individuals. We’ve had the pandemic, earthquakes, a divisive presidential election, mandatory on-line learning, telecommuting, and figuring out which mask has the best fit AND shows off our inner smile! Zoom, a word that few knew in 2019, is now ingrained in our vernacular as a noun and a verb. Covid-19 has shattered the continuity of our routines and exposed the fragility of events we may have taken for granted like going to movies, playdates at the park, or birthday parties. Children and adolescents, as resilient as they are, have not been immune to these disruptions.
As we reminisce about our own childhoods, the school-age years were certainly a challenging time period for most of us. Figuring out our likes and dislikes, whether we were a dancer or a violin player or an athlete or a bookworm. Navigating our developing bodies, acne eruptions, falling in love, and enduring those devastating breakups. Should we cut our hair short or grow it long? Do we save up and buy the blue shoes or the orange ones with sparkles? And when do I get my braces off??? These are the things that mattered to us. Most of these rites of passage are generational and seem to repeat as the next cohort works their way through school. However, it’s safe to say, we never had to go through those times with the backdrop of a pandemic looming overhead. Many hours of face-to-face social interaction with peers have been lost. Performances, sporting events, concerts, and activities have been erased from the calendar. Adolescents have been driven deeper into the depths of social media to fill the time.
Today (or perhaps next week), many kids will wake up, eat breakfast, and log on to their schoolwork. This daily ritual is mentally taxing for both students and teachers. Most children suffer in this environment, unable to sustain continuous focus and dedication. Parents try to juggle holding both their kids accountable with school and themselves with their employers. Our homes have always been our respite from work and school. It’s our safe place, to unwind and decompress from our outside lives. These worlds have been blended and the lines blurred. Escape from school is no longer waiting for the bell to ring. Today kids beg to go to school! Did you ever think you’d see the day?
What 2020 has cooked up in this coronavirus stew is a recipe for stress, anger, depression, resentment, uncertainty, and fear. Yes, there have been bright moments for some, but no one will go into 2021 without Covid scars.
What can we do as parents, family members, and a community?
- Talk to your children. Discuss how they are feeling and how this year has affected them. Don’t let them shelter away in their rooms for hours. Pull them out with games and family activities. Sympathize with them. Tell them that you never had to go through anything like they have and how hard it must be. Try and put yourself in their shoes. The simple act of listening and endorsing their feelings will go far.
- Put down the phones. Your child senses parental engagement. Phones create a barrier between us and our children. Social media teaches them to rely too much on the approval of others rather than on themselves. We teach them that self-esteem is not an internal quality, but one that others bestow upon us. The connection between increased social media use and depression is well documented. It is a poison and becomes toxic if consumed too much. Parents are promoting poor mental health outcomes in their children by not regulating phone usage. We invest so much effort in their physical health but pay too little attention to their mental health.
- Promote physical activity. Kids, now more than ever, need that release. With our favorite playgrounds closed, we must get creative. Winter is a challenge but should not be a barrier. Bundling up for short walks can create those breaks we all need and allow for some one-on-one time with your child.
Despite our best efforts, sometimes our children can be dealing with issues and feelings that parents may not know how to manage. Parents may be overwhelmed or have their own struggles with anxiety and depression. Our practice is firmly dedicated to promoting all aspects of a child’s health, including mental health. We address mental health at all ages. For patients 12 and older, we conduct a formal screening for anxiety and depression at their annual well-child checks. For children or adolescents that are having a difficult time managing these challenging times, we encourage families to schedule an appointment even if their next well check is months away. We also have an outstanding team of mental health therapists that provide counseling, therapy, parenting techniques, and much more to all of our patients.
Poor mental health may be the most insidious illness of all. Nationwide, the leading cause of death in children ages 10 to 17 is suicide. Utah has the fifth-highest rate of suicide in the nation. Countless more children needlessly struggle for years to manage these symptoms on their own.
What I like to say to my patients is “please don’t suffer in silence.” If your child needs help, please come talk to me, or one of my esteemed colleagues, and together we will make it through 2020 and beyond.
Please visit the Mental Health section of our webpage for more information and resources.