COVID-19, more commonly known as coronavirus, is having an impact globally. In early March, COVID-19 was officially identified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Although much remains to be known about the virus, many countries including the United States have begun to take drastic precautions as a way to reduce the rates of infection.
The CDC and local governments have issued several recommendations to reduce the spread of COVID-19, which include limiting social interactions and practicing social distancing. According to the CDC, you should maintain at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others. Another major change for kids has been switching to home school to reduce children being in large classroom settings. This has reduced social interactions and limited contact with their friends. For some, this could lead to sadness or even symptoms of depression (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml).
It’s important to keep in mind that sadness and depression are not the same. While we all may become sad at some point in life, depression is a mental health condition. Common symptoms of depression may include sadness for an extended period of time, irritability, sleep difficulties, lack of appetite, and problems concentrating. Given the recent increased rates of suicide among Black youth, it is important to monitor for symptoms of depression in your child. A recent study reported that Black children between ages 5 to 12 had a suicide rate approximately two times higher than their same-aged white peers (Bridge, Horowitz, Fontanella, et al., 2018). During this stressful time period, it is important to look out for warning signs and seek help from a mental health provider to help address concerns with depression or other mental health difficulties. Many providers are offering services via teletherapy or online therapy.
The National Institute of Mental Health offers these questions to ask your child to help determine whether they may be experiencing depression:
- Do you constantly feel sad, anxious, or even “empty,” like you feel nothing?
- Do you feel hopeless or like everything is going wrong?
- Do you feel like you’re worthless or helpless? Do you feel guilty about things?
- Do you feel irritable much of the time?
- Do you find yourself spending more time alone and withdrawing from friends and family?
- Are your grades dropping?
- Have you lost interest or pleasure in activities and hobbies that you used to enjoy?
- Have your eating or sleeping habits changed (eating or sleeping more than usual or less than usual)?
Strategies to Support and Promote Resilience in Your Child
Meeting with a mental health professional about your child does not mean you are an incompetent or unfit parent. Sometimes, children need a little extra support or a different type of parenting to perform at their best. Early intervention is often the key to successful treatment, and building resilience or the ability to adapt to adversity, or even significant sources of stress, can help your child manage these emotional stressors. Talking to a mental health professional may put your mind at ease if you learn that there are no severe problems or diagnoses.
We can all develop resilience, and you can play a critical role in assisting your child’s healthy development. Here are some tips to help build resilience in your child.
Building Social Connections: A crucial lesson for children is how to network and make friends which includes skills such as empathy towards others. In the home, it could be vital to build a more robust family network to support your child in life challenges and disappointments. In the school setting, it is essential to make sure that your child is not being isolated as connecting with others provides emotional support and strengthens resilience. During this time, you can help build social connections virtually when possible. For example, you can try to set up activities with their friends and family though private Facebook groups, Zoom or other platforms. Some teens may want to play videogames with their friends or do watch parties of their favorite shows on Netflix.
Create and maintain a routine: Creating and maintaining a routine can be especially comforting to children. Younger children desire structure and support in their lives. Create a routine for you and your children, as well as assist your child in developing their own schedule. You should also be sure that your child maintains a regular sleep schedule as adequate sleep is important for managing your emotions and frustrations.
Creating a positive view of self: You can help your child to develop a positive view of themselves by reminding them how they have successfully handled past challenges and that they are capable of handling future challenges. This reminder will help them build trust in themselves to make positive decisions in their life. It may also be useful to engage in racial and ethnic socialization (RES). RES involves parents teaching their child about their heritage, how they may be treated by others due to their race, and how to cope with racism in society. The American Psychological Association’s RESilience Initiative is one tool that is useful for engaging in conversations about racism and racial heritage. Studies by numerous authors have found that RES helps to develop healthy self-esteem and reduces risk of developing mental health issues such as depression (Turner, 2019). Remember that creating warm and nurturing relationships between you and your child is a critical factor in building resilience and overcoming potential emotional stressors. You have the power to build resilience skills in your child. However, at times, you should also consider working with a mental health provider.
Warning Signs for Parents to Seek Professional Help
Parents have the responsibility to protect their children from all harm. Physical pains are often easier to recognize and treat than mental disorders. Still, it is sometimes challenging to identify when a child is having emotional or behavioral problems at home, school, or with their friends. These related emotional behaviors often leave parents feeling confused and unsure about how to best support their child.
In addition to concerns about depression, research suggests that nearly one in six children between the ages of 6-17 is affected by an emotional or behavioral disorder (Whitney & Peterson, 2019). As a parent, you may recognize that something is not right with your child but might have challenges in understanding the mental health signs or knowing what to do next. Because children and teens are still learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, their mental health symptoms are often behavioral. Each mental health concern has its own specific symptoms, but common symptoms in children and teens may include the following:
- Frequent disobedience or aggression
- Hyperactive behaviors
- Avoiding friends, family, and social activities
- Prolonged or intense feelings of irritability or anger
- Changes in sleeping habits, persistent nightmares, and low energy
- Excessive worry, for instance, fighting to avoid bed or school
- Changes in school performance
- Obsessive concerns with their weight, shape, or appearance
- Eating significantly more or less than usual
- Multiple physical complaints without apparent causes (e.g., headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
By observing these behaviors and listening to your parental instincts, you can voice your concerns and begin the journey of finding and advocating for the professional help your child may need.
Bridge, J. A., Horowitz, L. M., Fontanella, C. A., Sheftall, A. H., Greenhouse, J., Kelleher, K. J., & Campo, J. V. (2018). Age-related racial disparity in suicide rates among US youths from 2001 through 2015. JAMA Pediatrics, 172(7), 697-699.
National Institute of Mental Health (2020). Teen Depression. Retrieved March 25, 2020 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/teen-depression/index.shtml.
Turner (2019). Mental Health Among African Americans: Innovations in Research and Practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing.
Whitney, D.G., Peterson, M.D. (2019). US National and State-Level Prevalence of Mental Health Disorders and Disparities of Mental Health Care Use in Children. JAMA Pediatrrics, 173(4):389–391.
Dr. Erlanger “Earl” A. Turner, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor of psychology. He earned his B.S. in psychology from Louisiana State University and his M.S. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. Dr. Turner completed a clinical fellowship at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, with a specialization in child psychology. His research focuses on mental health among racial and ethnic communities, therapy use among parents, and cultural competency. He is the author of Mental Health among African Americans: Innovations in Research and Practice. Dr. Turner has also chaired of the APA Board of the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest and is the 2020 President of the Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice (APA Division 37).
Thomas A. Vance, PhD is a mental health clinician and teaching postdoctoral fellow at The New School, in New York City. He received his B.A. degree in psychology from The University of West Georgia, and his M.A.Ed. and PhD degrees in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Counseling Psychology from The University of Akron. He completed his clinical psychology pre-doctoral internship at Boston University School of Medicine, specifically at The Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology (CMTP) and a Postdoctoral Research and Clinical Fellowship at Columbia University Medical Center in the department of Psychiatry. Dr. Vance’s clinical practice, research, and teaching reflect his commitment to informing social justice efforts with scientific evidence and informing scientific advancements with social justice and multicultural considerations.
This article is re-posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s RESilience Initiative, which provides resources to parents and caregivers for promoting the strength, health, and well-being of children and youth of color. Learn more at www.apa.org/res.