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Checking in on the mental health of our children

March 15, 2022 | Mental Health | Healthy You

Mother and daughter by the fireplace

Strategies to help kids and youth who are feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic.

The stress and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic have been rough on everyone—including our kids.

The rate of anxiety and depression among youth was rising steadily before the pandemic, and in the past two years, it has climbed to a new high: one in four.

Jessica Swensen, a PeaceHealth psychiatric occupational therapist in Eugene, Oregon, said more of the children and teens she works with are experiencing mental health symptoms, such as anxiety or depression, which can affect their ability to focus at school, remember things, and get a good night’s sleep.

“We’ve all had a difficult last couple of years and I definitely see that reflected in the kids I work with,” Swensen observed. “Kids are feeling more forgetful, more apathetic and more worried.”

Perhaps you’ve seen those changes in your own kids, or in other children you’re close to. When talking with them, Swensen advised, be careful to avoid using labels like “lazy,” “dramatic” or “worry wart.” These labels can cause kids to stop sharing, which can make it even more difficult to figure out what they are experiencing and why their behavior is changing.

Instead, ask open-ended questions like, “It seems like you’re having a hard time right now, do you want to talk about it?”

“It seems like you’re struggling. What can I do to help you right now, or what might be helpful in the future?”

Many of the children and teens Swensen works with are having difficulty with sensory processing. Most of us are familiar with the five senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. We also have additional senses of movement and body awareness. Sensory processing is the body and mind taking in and dealing with the input from our environments. 

“After two years of avoiding human interaction to limit the transmission of COVID-19 and a year and a half of online school, kids are struggling as they return to in-person school and every-day interactions,” Swensen said. Put simply, they’re overstimulated. That can lead to a range of behaviors: struggling to pay attention, seeming to ignore directions, being distracted easily, not engaging in activities they used to enjoy, and avoiding crowds or crowded places.

A child might come home from school complaining that it’s so noisy there, or the lights are too bright. A teen might mention how annoyed they feel when a classmate clicks their pen incessantly or how nervous they feel now going into a busy grocery store.

Finding ways to lower input can make certain environments more bearable. Earplugs or headphones might be an option to help dampen the noise and sunglasses could dim the bright lights.

Some strategies to help calm children and youth when they’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed include:

  • Movement: Take a walk, do some jumping jacks, have an indoor dance party. When we move, it helps our brain and makes us feel more centered.
  • Heavy work with weight or resistance added: Examples include vacuuming or doing squats or push-ups.
  • Deep pressure: This sensory input goes through our muscles or joints. It could be from a big hug, a weighted blanket, lying under a pile of blankets, or wrapping oneself tightly into a blanket burrito.

Using these strategies orients our bodies in space, which can help our brains calm and regulate. Be on the lookout for other ways that kids can add more movement, heavy work or deep pressure into their daily routines, and keep track of which strategies are most helpful.

If the changes in a child’s behavior are interfering with their everyday functioning: ability to sleep, play, attend school, or regulate their emotions, then it may be time to seek help.

All of our communities are straining to meet the increased demand for mental health services. However, starting the conversation with your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider is a good way to get the ball rolling and seeking out ways to connect with online and community resources can provide additional support for both parents and children.