LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — The mental health effects of the ongoing pandemic are weighing on everyone, including children.
"Recent articles published just this summer have shown that children and adolescent anxiety have doubled since the beginning of the pandemic," said Dr. Michelle Martel, the Director of Clinical Training at the University of Kentucky and a licensed clinical child psychologist.
The COVID-19 pandemic is fueling feelings of stress, fear, grief, and general uncertainty about the future, meaning it is more important than ever to pay attention to signs children may be struggling with their mental health.
"It's very stressful for kids and parents alike," Dr. Martel said. "There's quarantines, significant life events, social anxiety, and concern about germs."
While some signs of stress and anxiety may present as increased irritability or self-isolation, Dr. Martel explained young children could express somatic symptoms.
"Especially younger kids may not be able to tell you that they feel worried or stressed. They may instead complain about stomach aches or headaches," she said. "Kids will often report things that are more like in their body than they will in terms of their feelings."
Dr. Martel said parents can help their children cope with anxiety by acknowledging complex feelings when they come up.
"You know, talking about my own feelings and inviting them to express their feelings knowing there are no wrong feelings," she said. "Incorporate some kind of check-in at the end of the day. That's really helpful because it'll give your kid a chance to vent anything they need to vent about and you and so that you are made aware of problems as soon as they come up."
Pediatric hospitalizations from COVID-19 are on the rise, but deaths in children remain uncommon. However, children may express worry about what happens if they or a family member get sick.
"Follow your kid's lead. If they ask you about it, talk to them about it," Dr. Martel said. "I always try to be very honest. I do note, I think accurately, that the risk is low for them, but I am also honest that for people with health conditions or older people there is a bigger risk."
She said teaching kids there are precautions they can take to protect themselves and those around them, like wearing masks and social distancing, can make children feel safer and help reduce anxiety.
Keeping a positive outlook and attitude through difficult moments and conversations can also help, according to Dr. Martel.
"The extent that you can stay calm and comforting will go a long way with your kids," she said. "Mostly, just be kind to yourself. Every day does feel like a fire alarm, and if you're struggling, you're not alone."
Parents can also be proactive in creating an environment their children can thrive in by establishing and maintaining routines. Dr. Martel recommends creating a consistent, soothing bedtime routine and carving time out to participate in social activities.
"The structure is really comforting to them," Dr. Martel said.
Dr. Martel emphasized if you or your child are struggling to cope with stress and anxiety, you can always turn to a mental health professional to help.