Back-to-school season is usually an upbeat time, but as students begin distance learning this year, some professionals are concerned about the mental aspects of being stuck at home in isolation.
Lisa Durette, program director of the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship at UNLV, says it isn’t a question of which age groups are most susceptible to COVID-19 stress, but how those issues present themselves at different ages.
Preschoolers, Durette says, tend to have an egocentric worldview, so it’s “not uncommon” for them to feel like what’s happening during the pandemic is their fault. They may exhibit more tantrums, show regression in their academic progress and have difficulty managing day-to-day behaviors.
Elementary school children are also likely to show behavioral changes. An outgoing child might be more withdrawn, Durette says, or a cooperative kid “might demonstrate more irritability.”
Teenagers, meanwhile, are “developmentally drawn” to identify with groups of similar people, Durette says, which presents a specific problem during the pandemic. Because teens can’t socialize as they normally would, it’s becoming common to see teens acting out, being defiant, pushing rules and boundaries and/or exhibiting depression, withdrawal, self-injury and substance abuse.
“Depression can impact every element of a human’s life,” Durette says. That includes appetite, sleep and the way in which we perceive things. “It’s like looking at the world through tinted glasses where everything is tinged ‘depression’.”
Jared Lau, program coordinator and graduate coordinator of counselor education at UNLV, says COVID-19 has posed an especially difficult problem for counselors-in-training who have typically worked in the field as part of their study. His priority has been making sure both his graduate students are supported, and that they also have an understanding of what’s happening at the school level, “from Henderson to Centennial.”
“We have to really reinforce our mission of school counseling and to provide for [students’] social and emotional support,” Lau says.
The fact that not every child has equal access to computers or the internet, or that students might be living in unsafe home environments, presents an even greater issue. Lau says counselors and counselors-in-training are attempting to alleviate those problems with regular Zoom check-ins, staying in contact with students through email and scheduling regular online appointments.
“We understand, from a traditional standpoint, how to recognize [warning] signs among our students and children when they’re displaying signs of mental distress,” Lau says. “Those obstacles have been enhanced when we don’t have our counselors in the schools every day. We have to really get creative and depend upon a lot of other people to share that information with us.”
Durette says to look out for a child being more irritable than usual, not enjoying things as much, overeating or not eating, exhibiting difficulty falling asleep or sleeping in excess, not taking care of their hygiene and appearance, declining academic performance, thoughts of not wanting to be around and passive suicidal thinking.
To help combat that, Durette recommends “anything that kids can do to have some sense of connectedness,” including using social platforms like Zoom or FaceTime.
“It’s really important to remind kids there is an end to this, that it’s not forever, [that] this is temporary,” she adds. “Kids are sponges, and they absorb what you say verbally and what you don’t say verbally, so if you as the adult are also appearing withdrawn and distressed, kids are going to pick up on it and act upon it.”
It’s also essential for parents, teachers and caregivers to reach out to their own social support circles for assistance. “We’re all doing this together, we’re all co-isolating,” Durette says, adding that it’s vital not to become oversaturated with the news or negativity. “Figure out the balance of getting that information and not allowing it to overtake your life or what your kids hear.”
Lau reminds us that, as vital as it is for parents to stay aware and recognize when children are falling behind, practicing kindness is equally important. “We have to recognize this is not what we’re used to, and we need to be human about that and be forgiving about it,” Lau says. That includes being mindful of other people’s situations, too.
“We’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, and we’re trying to survive within that and find a way to still learn and study for a test, to pass and get into the next grade,” Lau says. “Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and to make a mistake doesn’t mean we just give up. It’s recognizing that we’re all in this together.”
For those in need of assistance, Durette suggests visiting the Virtual Support Center at the Albert Einstein College od Medicine (einstein.yu.edu/intranet/coronavirus/virtual-support-center/families), the COVID resource center at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (aacap.org/coronavirus) or Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) for educational support and advice on how to talk to children about the coronavirus.