Learning on Zoom, canceled trips and sports tournaments, and not seeing friends for months. For many kids and teens, COVID-19 has been tough.

Some studies show worrying mental health trends among younger Canadians.

SickKids published a study in 2021 showing more than half of 758 kids aged eight to 12 years old and 70 per cent of 520 adolescents reported depression symptoms during COVID19’s third wave in Canada.

“For kids already experiencing preCOVID mental health challenges, we know the pandemic has in some cases ratcheted up anxiety for kids, and made it more impactful,” said Marg Cox, executive director of the Point in Time Centre for Children, Youth and Parents.

“It seems like there’s an increase in stress related to meeting practical needs, emotional needs,” added child youth and family therapist Rachelle Stephens. “I would say a lot of things coming up for people and causing stress is lack of predictability. No one knows what things might look like, which causes a lot of stress for parents and youth and children.”

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Cox and Stephens dove into some ways parents and caregivers can help their kids and teens navigate the stress and uncertainty of the continuing pandemic.

Viewing things differently

Stephens said kids often view issues such as the pandemic in black and white. It can seem like it will go on forever. “It’s hard for them to understand the nuances and complexities,” she said.

Cox added that “right across all development stages, including youth, kids take their cues from parents.” Cox said teens lacking peer-to-peer “sounding boards” in classmates and friends can mean they process the events of the pandemic differently than other crises.

Since social activities can be so central to a kid’s development, cancellations of hockey or dance class can have an outsized impact on mood and mental health.

Cox said teens are left “without the same space they would normally have, in trying to be safe and not seeing many people. [It’s] the reverse of what should be happening at that stage of life developmentally.”

Tough talks

“How do you say ‘I don’t have all the answers’?” Cox asked. “You say ‘I don’t have all the answers’ and you make sure as you’re describing things it’s developmentally appropriate,” she said.

Parents might consider creating a time to check in on their kids and teens, suggested Stephens, “to say how are you doing today, how are you feeling right now’?” She encourages parents to ask specific questions about what feelings a kid might have, as opposed to broader questions such as ‘how was school’?”

She said being “non-judgmental” in responding to a kid and teen is important. “Validating the feeling regardless of what that feeling might be for them,” she said.

Safe spots

Without many extracurriculars and with snowy weather, family living can feel a bit cramped.

Stephens said it’s important for families to respect each other’s “need for alone time.” That also means trying to get outdoors each day for a bit of extra space.

Cox mentioned headsets can be a way for teens to find privacy, or trying a schedule for alone time when bedrooms are shared.

“People do better when they have regular meals, when they have enough sleep and regular exercise.” She encouraged families to talk about “what the structure of a day can be.”

Caring for the carers

“We’re all doing the best we can,” Stephens said. “By caring for ourselves we’re also caring for others.”

By regulating a parent’s own emotions and mental health, that can help support kids too.

“As adults getting our own support is an important piece of that,” she said.

Cox added that ensuring parents have the time and space to treat themselves, even for half an hour, to something restful. “Netflix, reading, giving yourself a bath, whatever it is,” she said.

Warning signs

A child or teen’s mental health sometimes calls for expert help. Stephens said parents should keep an eye out for a change in a child’s “baseline. When you’re noticing a change in their behaviour in their social functioning in their emotional functioning.”

Cox added that changed sleeping and eating habits can be a sign there are more serious mental health issues at play, as can more anger, or having trouble playing with friends like they once did.

“I would add that there’s never a wrong time to reach out for help,” Stephens said.

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