Checking in on kids’ mental health amid closures

With schools closed and children not seeing their friends in person, it could surface new emotions and issues. How can you help them?
By Erica Zucco

SAN ANTONIO — Like adults, many children are currently coping with the new reality formed by closures meant to prevent the spread of coronavirus — but in most cases, UT Health San Antonio psychiatrist Dr. Donna Roybal says it will manifest differently than it would in adults.

“It’s a very different experience for them than when adults do Zoom, and happy hours online, use verbal communication,” Dr. Roybal said. “For kids it’s still very important to have that physical interaction, that ability to just spontaneously do something, because they need something physically different in their play than we do.”

For children already receiving mental health support, it’s important to monitor them during this time. For all kids, it’s essential to check in and understand they may be feeling differently, and to make sure they know you are a safe resource for them to talk to.

“Let them know, first and foremost- that this is not permanent,” Dr. Roybal said. “That while, in their world, it feels like it is, in their shortened lifespan- compare it to things that have been shortened for them. Let them know- your birthday comes every year and you think it will be a long time but sure enough, it comes.”

It’s not just children facing uncertain times- and it’s crucial to check in on your own mental health as well.

“I think the hard thing for them is unpredictability- which is hard for everyone- so to manage your own sense of unpredictability and anxiety, will be helpful for them,” Dr. Roybal said.

For teenagers, Dr. Roybal encourages parents to let them sleep in a little longer than normal, though not all day.

“Let them sleep in a little bit- let them grow- you’ll probably find a growth spurt during this period, which would not be surprising, because they’re sleeping a lot.”

She says it’s also good to find a healthy balance of routine and spontaneity. Know that it is also normal for them to “act out” differently during these times.

“They don’t really tend to show their anxiety or stress the way adults do all the time- they won’t come up and say hey, I’m stressed out, usually,” Dr. Roybal said. “It’ll come out as irritability. They’re just gonna come up and be cranky and you may not know why. It might be friend drama, this whole new virtual world, with video games, there’s drama there, it could be social influences- and then just boredom.”