We don’t have a parenting manual at home that allows us to turn to Chapter 4 on children and pandemics so that we know what signs to look for in our kids or even in ourselves. We’ve never faced anything like this before so there is no research to fall back on. If you're like many parents out there, you're probably questioning whether isolation measures and physical distancing are doing lasting damage to your kids' emotional development. But there are some signs we can watch out for that may signal mental health issues.
Sleep Issues: Sleep disturbances are common in difficult times, so kids may experience insomnia, nightmares, waking in the night or other irregularities.
Mood Shifts: Clinical Psychologist John Mayer advises parents to look for changes in “normal behavior” or temperament. Behaviors to be aware of include angry outbursts, sudden bouts of crying, sullenness, irritability, loss of interest in favorite activities and isolating from others. Kids don’t always verbalize their struggles, but anxiety, depression and other mental health issues can manifest in unusual behavior or moods.
Clingy Tendencies: You might see an increase in clingy behavior. You want to pay attention to if your child is following you from room to room, is having a hard time if you are out of eyesight or is unable to separate at all.
Withdrawal: On the other end of the spectrum, some kids may start to ignore the family members in their home or choose to reject the opportunity to connect with loved ones virtually. Some children may become more withdrawn and retreat into their rooms to spend more time on technology and phones.
Regressive Behaviors: Behaviors that you thought your child had grown out of may suddenly reappear. This might include things like thumb-sucking, needing a special toy for comfort, bed-wetting. This is normal during periods of stress like this but it’s something you want to keep an eye on if it continues.
Changes in Appetite: Keep an eye out for changes in eating habits in your child's eating habits. Have they suddenly lost their appetite or starting eating for extra comfort? This usually affects older kids and teens.
Reassurance-Seeking: Kids and teens may express worries about their own or others’ health, the future and even death. This is often a sign of internal anxiety, so it’s important for you to be present to offer that reassurance and a sense of stability.
Trouble Focusing: Older kids and teens may struggle to focus on educational tasks or procrastinate as they get easily distracted. Robin Gurwitch, a Duke University psychiatry professor specializing in family and child mental health says… “It may be a child forgets to complete a chore she has done for a while. It may mean that you tell him to complete a task and he can’t remember what you just said.”
Acting Out: Children may start pushing boundaries, displaying higher levels of aggression, disobeying instructions or getting into more arguments with family members.