I sat in with a group of mental health professionals the other day as they talked about their experiences working with children and families during the pandemic. As a group, they’re worried about local youth and how they’re coping during the pandemic. But they’re also hopeful.
The news recently has been frightening. A Feb. 14 report from the New York Times, for example, described experts as “paint(ing) a grim picture of the struggle with lockdown isolation” and suggesting this “mental health pandemic” should be treated as seriously as containing the coronavirus.” The report quoted several studies including one in the U.S. that showed 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds have seriously considered suicide.
Locally, the news is similar: youth are finding COVID-19 shutdowns difficult for reasons that go beyond anxiety about the virus and the health of their families, or missing social time with their friends.
Being separated from their social circles is tough; so is remote learning. There are fears of missing out on key social milestones like prom and graduation, and also fears of the future including the possibility of losing scholarships and access to college, or not being able to get a job when they graduate from college with heavy debt loads.
But there’s also hope, local experts said, and resilient youth and families working together to find ways to support each other.
Here are the group’s top tips for supporting youth as I heard them from the discussion. Although many are general and applicable to all ages, we were mainly speaking about youth ages 12 to 18.
Connect every day: The Help & Hope professionals agreed that staying connected with your child with regular check-ins is one of the most important things a parent can do to be supportive. Parents must pay close attention noticing, but not necessarily acting on, the days when their child is behaving in non-typical ways.
This isn’t meant to suggest that parents aren’t doing this. It’s more an acknowledgement that it’s sometimes hard to get your child to open up about their experiences, especially during their teenage years. It’s tough, but persevering is crucial, says Deloris Joseph, Youth Advocate for the town of Dartmouth.
Watch your child, Joseph says, but be careful not to assume a particularly slow morning is a sign your child is depressed or anxious. It might just be that he or she stayed up late playing video games.
If the behaviors continue and it looks like a pattern that’s when you should be concerned, she said.
“Don't be afraid to ask questions,” Joseph suggests. “I think sometimes parents and guardians don't want to ask questions. I ask my 15-year-old questions all the time. I know when something’s off with him.”
Spend time together: Joseph advises asking your child for help with a small task like preparing dinner. Those small activities can lead to a conversation about how they are feeling, she said. It’s not always effective, but sometimes working together can help your child open up more easily.
“It doesn't have to cost money. If you're able to cook dinner, I don't care if it's just boiling hot dogs that night, (say) ‘Come in here and help me get the hotdogs out of the refrigerator,’ and talk to them while they're doing that. You would be amazed at what they’ll open up and talk about once they're doing something that's connected to you,” she said.
Other shared activities can be watching a movie together or playing board games.
“There are things that parents can do to try to strengthen relationships,” said Joseph. “I know parents and caregivers don't have a lot of time. I totally get it, but even if you just try to dedicate 30 minutes a week. Just try to figure out when you can, because your kids are important.
Focus on your child’s strenghts: As the old song goes, you have to ‘accentuate the positive,’ according to local professionals.
“Focus on the strengths and hammer them home,” said Matthew Boyd, Mobile Crisis Intervention program manager, Child & Family Services, Inc.. Boyd suggests saying things like, ‘I'm proud of you’ or, ‘You did this really well’ as often as possible.
Be positive and let them know we will get through this, he said.
“I think resiliency is all about finding the strength, finding that person who can drive home that a child has a specific set of skills or someone has a specific set of skills that makes them unique and different,” he said.
Joseph agrees. It can be praising something small, she said, like if your child takes off their hat and mittens and puts them where they're supposed to be instead of dropping them on the floor.
“I think sometimes we focus on the negative and don’t even pick up on when something’s going well that day,” she said. “Try to find the strength because we all have resilience and children are very resilient. (Tell them) we're all going to get through this; not to try to normalize it, but to say, ‘You may be having a bad day. It's OK. It's OK.’”
Finally, get help when you need it: There is no right or wrong time to pick up the phone and call for help, say local professionals. Ultimately it boils down to your interpretation of the moment.
Just like you don’t have to be suicidal to call and get help from a suicide hotline, you don’t need to be in crisis to access support from a crisis center.
“Crises are individualized,” said Boyd. “In general, it's any change in someone's baseline functioning. So we've seen things from as simple as someone presenting with just inattentiveness, not being able to focus, struggling academically … to unfortunately things as severe as self-injury.”
“There's no criteria,” he continued. “If something’s different, if something’s off and you need support, we're here.”
I’ll have more from this conversation in the coming days. Check back if you’re interested to hear more of what this group had to say.