The pandemic has taken a toll on us. Many have lost family and friends as a result of COVID-19, and others have struggled with lifestyle changes and isolation.
As a mother, I saw firsthand the ways pandemic adjustments affected my own young daughters. They missed their school routines and friends, and as days turned into months, I took note of my teenaged daughter’s increased irritability, disengagement, and excessive sleeping. These are signs of both depression and anxiety, and I knew she was struggling.
Understandably, clinical cases of depression and anxiety have escalated over the past year. While these illnesses are diagnosed separately, the warning signs can overlap. Symptoms of depression may include lack of energy, anger and irritability, sadness and hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest in previous activities, and suicidal thoughts or self-mutilating behaviors. Anxiety symptoms may include social withdrawal and isolation, problems sleeping (either sleeping excessively or the inability to sleep), low self-esteem or a drop in self-esteem, and mood swings.
While it’s hard to see our children suffer, one of the most important things parents can do to support their child’s mental health is to acknowledge the signs and symptoms. It takes courage to recognize this inner struggle, and it is by no means a deficit in our parenting.
If you have noticed signs that your child is showing symptoms, there are many ways to show support. Start with these:
Ask tough questions
It’s important that parents have open conversations with their children about mental health. Start by letting them know you’ve noticed a difference in their manner or routine. Tell them you’re concerned. And don’t shy away from conversations that can be scary. Ask direct questions: How long have you been feeling this way, how can I help, do you feel like hurting yourself, would you like to speak with someone about your feelings?
Counseling provides a safe space for healing and personal growth. Young children can benefit from play or family therapy to help them cope. In addition, parents can engage in counseling themselves, to learn how to understand and support their child’s needs. When discussing counseling with your teenager, talk together about the options. They can meet with a counselor on their own, attend with you, or ask a supportive relative or friend to join them. If your child is resistant to counseling, give it a little time and revisit the subject later. Forcing it on him or her could be more damaging, leaving your child with negative thoughts about the process altogether.
Stay in touch
Keep the lines of communication open. If your child refuses to communicate with you, try not to take it personally. Many times, our kids do not want to burden us with their problems, especially if we are having problems of our own. Be there for them when they’re ready to talk, and encourage them to reach out to family and friends as well.
Act when it’s an emergency
Never ignore signs of suicidal thoughts if your child says they want to die, they wish they were never born, or life would be fine without them. Whether they say it, write it, or post it social media, you should always take the expression of suicidal threats seriously.
Be an active parent
The pandemic has forced changes in our day-to-day family routines, including the way parents work and children learn. Whether you are working from home or have returned to work, be involved with your kids’ education. Check in with them on assignments, offer encouragement, and celebrate their achievements. Look, too, for new ways to have fun as a family—whether it’s an afternoon at the beach, card games, or having a staycation.
Finally, empathy goes a long way, now more than ever. This has been a rough year for everyone. Be gentle and show your child that you love and support them, no matter what.
Benicia Hernandez is a licensed professional counselor, licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner and a certified life coach. She is the founder and CEO of Life’s Journey Mental Health Services, a full-service behavioral health care agency serving the Hampton Roads area.