If your child hasn’t been behaving like themselves for months, past the point of it being a “phase,” you likely start worrying their behaviour is a sign of something more serious.
Evidence shows many kids are still grappling with the effects of the pandemic on their mental health. According to research from The Hospital for Sick Children, heightened levels of depression and anxiety among children and youth seen in the early days of COVID-19 have remained consistent.
Ruth Masliyah, a clinical social worker at SickKids, says it can be hard for parents to know if their child needs extra support for what might be worsening mental health. When it’s time to seek outside help can differ from child to child, but Masliyah says there are some signs parents can look for.
Physical symptoms suddenly appear
Depending on their age and stage, kids can show symptoms of anxiety and depression in different ways.
When a younger child is struggling, they typically don’t have the vocabulary to express all their emotions or worries. Instead, it’s common for them to express themselves through physical symptoms they might be experiencing due to their emotional state. Many kids will talk about having a headache or stomach ache.
Because developmentally it’s harder for them to articulate with words how they’re feeling, younger children also tend to express themselves through behaviour. For example, if they’re anxious they may throw a tantrum. Outbursts can occur when they no longer have a threshold to manage a situation or their emotions. They can become irritable faster or more clingy with parents and caregivers.
Kids of all ages will often experience a disruption in appetite and sleep when experiencing anxiety and low mood. Sometimes, kids will either lose or gain weight, have low energy or feel tired even after a good night’s sleep.
When a child of any age stops taking pleasure in activities they used to enjoy, or loses interest in seeing friends, that can be a sign of depression.
With younger children, signs of anxiety might include not wanting to try new things or saying they can’t do something. They can get focused on things not being perfect, or have outbursts when they can’t get something right.
When older children (nine and up) are experiencing anxiety or low mood, you tend to see avoidance. For example, they avoid situations such as school, play dates, or engaging with others. You see them procrastinate with things that make them anxious, whether that’s doing homework or participating in extracurricular activities.
Teens, meanwhile, tend to withdraw or isolate themselves. You might notice they’re staying in their room, not going out, just keeping to themselves.
What are the first steps in seeking outside support?
If you feel your child is struggling and you’re seeing impaired functioning that’s persisted for months at home and elsewhere, it might be time to seek help.
You’ll want to start with your primary health-care provider, who will help rule out any medical issues. Also, it would be a physician or health-care professional who would refer your child for a psychiatric assessment if necessary.
You’ll also want to check in with the school to see if your child has been exhibiting symptoms in class.
How to offer support at home
If your child is struggling with anxiety or depression, Ruth Masliyah, a clinical social worker at SickKids, has some suggestions for ways you can help support them at home.
- Give kids a sense of control
The more kids feel they have agency over their lives, the more in control they feel. For younger children, this could be as simple as letting them pick out their own clothes or choose what the family will have for dinner. For older kids and teens, this might be incorporating into their lives the activities they enjoy and excel at, while giving them space to express what they’re not enjoying and what they’re finding stressful.
- Strategize the unpredictable
Look at your weekly schedule and think about what events are predictable and unpredictable, and try to make sure your child knows ahead of time what’s on their schedule. If they know beforehand that certain activities or events might not go as planned, you can strategize together about ways to handle it.
- Don’t try to fix, validate
This is hard, but I tell parents to not try to problem-solve or fix things right away. For a lot of kids, validating their feelings can be very powerful. This is different from agreeing with everything they may be thinking or feeling; it’s validating that you understand their experience.
- Understand your child’s temperament
How you are supportive depends on your child’s temperament. You might have a relationship where you can say to your child, ‘What would work best for you? Do you want me to just sit with you, or do you want me to ask you questions?’ Some kids don’t like it when parents ask questions, while others wonder why their parents aren’t asking them anything — you know your child best.
- Don’t push kids into accepting outside help
When kids aren’t ready for therapy or treatment, pushing them into it can actually have an adverse effect. If your child is a willing participant, they’re going to work hard. That’s why these strategies at home can help. What’s more, parents can still reach out for their own support even if their child doesn’t want to consider therapy right away. It’s not an all-or-nothing situation.
That said, if your child is unsafe in the moment, you should seek help whether they want it or not.
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