Masked child

In the past several months, our lives have been altered in multiple ways. Many of our jobs transitioned to home, that is if we were privileged enough to have such an option. For others, job loss is what they experienced. Children began virtual school, and ZOOM became a normal part of our daily vernacular. In other words, the COVID-19 pandemic, infiltrated every aspect of our existence and uprooted our well-established routines. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that anxiety and depression have been on the rise.  Therapists and psychiatrists have reported that they have seen their caseloads increase. Those of us in primary care are also noticing more headache and insomnia complaints which are both somatic manifestations of stress and anxiety. Gastrointestinal concerns such as abdominal pain, nausea, and indigestion are also frequently reported during times of distress.

However, I feel like we have spent a lot of time discussing adult related issues during this pandemic and not enough time on the effects this public health crisis has had on our children.  Disruption in routine is a major cause of behavior problems in young children. Therefore, adults need to be keenly aware of changes they are noticing in the young people in their lives. 

“Has the child’s appetite changed?”  “Has the child started to wet the bed when they had previously been potty trained?”  “Have you noticed the child is showing no interest in things they once found pleasurable?” These behaviors are warning signs that something is wrong and needs to be addressed immediately. Children are not mini adults, and they lack the ability to fully express themselves in words.  Most children cannot tell you that they feel depressed and anxious. Children act it out instead.

So, what should you do if you start to notice some of these behaviors?  How and when should you intervene?

It is important to acknowledge that a problem exists, which is the first step. Secondly, examine ways to lessen the impact of all the changes that were made early in the pandemic. For example, many children have been unable to have play dates or spend time with extended family.  Therefore, be creative and schedule a socially distanced drive through parade or a ZOOM scavenger hunt with their friends and family. I have also seen families taking hikes or learning new skills such as fishing or baking.

Focusing attention on ways to help the underserved in our communities is also beneficial to children during this time. Encourage children to think of ways to help others. Some families have been making masks or creating positive messages and printing them on cards. These activities keep children busy and help them channel their energies in other directions. It is never too early to instill in children an “attitude of gratitude” so that they can recognize their blessings. This new ability helps children learn how to reflect upon those blessings when they are feeling sad. 

As we navigate this new normal that the year 2020 has ushered in, let us be sensitive to how this pandemic has affected our children.  If you continue to notice that your child is exhibiting concerning behavior, please reach out to their doctor.  Some children during this time may need professional help. 

Denise Hooks-Anderson, M.D., FAAFP, is the medical accuracy editor of The St. Louis American.

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