What parents should know about children’s mental health amid coronavirus

As the pandemic presses on, children have been affected in different ways. Here’s what Tampa Bay area mental health experts are seeing.
A student holds a mask on the first day of school for Hillsborough County students, at Hillsborough High School on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020 in Tampa.
A student holds a mask on the first day of school for Hillsborough County students, at Hillsborough High School on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sept. 1, 2020

Mental health professionals in the Tampa Bay area say they’ve seen an uptick in demand for help among their youngest patients.

They also report an increase in anxiety, depression and suicide attempts, in children.

Here’s what families should know about how the pandemic has affected children’s mental health, and what experts say parents can do to help.

1. Anxiety is up, especially in kids with underlying issues

Adults aren’t the only ones feeling pressure about an uncertain future, said Dr. Marlene Bloom, a child psychologist in Tampa.

Doctors are seeing children who were already grappling with mild cases of anxiety, depression and other issues being exacerbated by disruptions in routine because of the pandemic, Bloom said.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen cases personally where the pandemic caused a full-blown mental health problem that wasn’t sort of bubbling under the surface originally,” she said.

Younger children have been able to adapt more easily to the changes this year, said Kimberley May, a licensed mental health counselor in Tampa. But in older children, she’s noticed a trend of increased anxiety.

“This is a grey area,” she said. “We’re constantly living in a time that we don’t know what’s going to happen and it’s never happened before.”

May said there will be long-term mental health effects because of the pandemic to come.

“The chemicals in your brain change to help you deal with the level of fear, anxiety that is constant,” she said. “Most of us are not used to this.”

2. Some children are grieving

More than 11,000 Floridians have died from coronavirus since the first case was recorded in March. The majority of those cases are in people ages 65 and older. Parents, grandparents, siblings and friends have been lost along the way.

Grief is especially difficult for children to process, said Eric Schleich, a licensed clinical social worker with Hope and Healing of Pinellas in St. Petersburg.

Children tend to absorb the stress, anger and sadness they see around them and draw their own conclusions about why someone died - often turning it inward and blaming themselves, or fearing they can somehow cause another death, he said.

Being reminded of the event surrounding a death can add another layer of difficulty.

“You’re constantly being re-triggered about how your loved one died,” Schleich said. “Which kind of continually re-traumatizes a person.”

3. How school plays into mental health

Even though most students continued school online in the spring, Bloom said she started to notice more issues related to anxiety and depression among her patients once summer began.

School was out, but the regular summertime activities, like family vacations, sports and summer camps, weren’t happening. Instead kids were stuck at home as the summer dragged on.

Bloom said she noticed an excitement building as students prepared to return to school this week.

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“There’s an energy and a hopefulness,” she said, even among her patients who are participating in virtual learning.

For older students, like high schoolers getting ready for a transition to college, the extended spring break period at the state of the pandemic was actually a welcomed reprieve, Bloom said.

“For the kids that kind of got a mental break, I think it was very therapeutic actually,” she said.

4. Signs parents should look for, and things they can do

Symptoms of mental distress in children can differ based on age group, said Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein, the director of psychology at John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

In preschool aged children and younger, parents should look for any signs of regression behavior, like thumb-sucking, bedwetting or extra clinginess. In older children, parents should be aware of added irritability, poor concentration, nightmares or changes in appetite.

Physical ailments, like stomach aches, can also be tied to anxiety, she said. Withdrawal from activities and friends is often a clear warning sign in young adults.

If children aren’t able to get mental health counseling, there are other ways parents can help, Katzenstein said. She recommends adding deep breathing exercises or meditation to the daily routine, and identifying and talking about emotional problems when they come up. It’s also vital that parents work to maintain a routine, she said.

5. Kids look to their parents for help, so parents need to take care of their mental health too

Children often use their parents as a baseline to model behavior. That means if a parent expresses a lot of anxiety, it can unnerve their children, Katzenstein said.

“For parents, it’s really important to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves too,” she said.

Along with regulating their own feelings and seeking help if they need it, parents shouldn’t dismiss the feelings of their children, Katzenstein said. There can be an inclination to tell children everything will be okay, but she said a healthier practice is to ask why that emotion came up and have a conversation about it.

Kathleen Rodriquez, a licensed clinical social worker with Hope In Home counseling in St. Petersburg, said how parents respond to their children’s emotional problems can mold the way they’ll respond to uncertain or frustrating life events in the future.

“With such uncertainty, it’s helpful for the parents to help the kids with developing adaptive and positive coping skills,” she said.

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