Signs that your child may dealing with anxiety or depression and how to help

By Miles J. Varn, M.D., Chief Executive Officer at PinnacleCare

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of people in the U.S. and around the world who are living with anxiety and depression. One report in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report noted that during a single week in late June 2020, 40% of adults in the U.S. reported struggling with mental health and substance use issues. Another report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in four American adults reported symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic.

The rates of depression and anxiety have also increased in children and teens. Data gathered by the CDC found that the percentage of visits to hospital emergency departments for mental health concerns increased 24% for children between the ages of five and 11 and 31% for those between the ages of 12 and 17 compared to the same period in 2019.

Social isolation related to online schooling and the limits on getting together with friends and family, anxiety about contracting the virus or a family member falling ill, and the economic and emotional stresses caused by job loss or other financial hardships are all contributing factors to this increase in anxiety and depression in children and teens.

How do you know if a child you care about is experiencing depression or anxiety? While the symptoms of these conditions in teens are often similar to adults’ symptoms, children’s symptoms can be different. Some symptoms that may suggest that a child is struggling include:

· More frequent or severe tantrums

· Symptoms like stomach aches and headaches without any underlying medical cause

· Frequent crying without a clear cause and difficulty being consoled

· Trouble concentrating

· Sudden decline in grades

· Harsh self-assessment or low self-esteem

· Obsessive fears or worry about illness or death

· Significant changes in eating or sleeping patterns

· Distress when separated from parents or caregivers

· Lack of interest in favorite activities

· Regression in potty training or return of bedwetting

How to help

While it’s difficult because parents and caregivers are also stressed and, in some cases, anxious or depressed because of the pandemic, the first step in helping your child is to try to set a positive tone with your own behavior. Invite your children to join you in self-care and stress management activities like yoga, meditation, or exercise appropriate for their age.

It’s also helpful to check in with your children frequently, asking open ended questions about how they’re feeling. These don’t have to be framed in terms of the pandemic, but can be a broader conversation started with a nonjudgmental question such as, “What was one thing that made you feel good today and one thing that made you feel not so good?”

Maintaining your regular routines as much as possible is another good approach. A predictable routine can provide children with structure that helps lessen feelings of anxiety. Try to have the same rising and bedtimes each day, have everyone in the family have at least one meal together, and continue with their usual chores.

Of course, with people staying at home most of the time, everyone needs some time to themselves. But don’t let your children retreat to their rooms for the majority of the day. In addition to family meals, gather the family to play a game, watch a movie, or go for a walk each day.

If your child’s symptoms last for more than two weeks or seem to be getting more severe, ask your pediatrician to recommend a mental health provider or check with your health insurer to find a provider. A health advisor can also be a good resource for connecting you with a provider who specializes in treating children with mental health issues. If your child threatens to harm him or herself, seek emergency treatment immediately.

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