“It’s not easy being 13,” became a mantra around my house last year.
It’s not a joke, and the challenges of childhood are not limited to any particular age.
Kids are contending with a combination of school challenges, social pressures and external issues such as climate change and racial justice. Puberty tends to throw everything out of whack, as can any instability at home.
What’s missing from that list? Oh yes, a global pandemic.
“Even before the pandemic, there was a need for mental-health support for young people,” says Samantha Jimenez, a mental health and wellness child psychologist with Kaiser Permanente. She added that the onset of COVID, with its uncertainty, need for social distancing and shift to remote education last year, created an uptick in concern about the emotional well-being of children.
So she wasn’t surprised when Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, took the unusual step in December 2021 of issuing a special advisory on “Protecting Youth Mental Health.”
Kids and mental health: a ‘crisis’
Calling the situation a “crisis,” Murthy highlighted a significant jump in reported depression and anxiety among young people, along with soaring rates of emergency-room visits for self-harm or suicide attempts.
“Especially with the pandemic, there are more unknowns, variables, unexpected changes and transitions for our youth,” said Jimenez, who practices at Kaiser’s Factoria Medical Center.
She said there have been a wide range of impacts on kids, depending on their individual situations and coping skills.
The transition to (and away from) remote learning, for instance: “There were lots of layers to how that affected children. Their day-to-day routines were thrown out the window. Then they went back to school, and that was another transition.”
All of this can result in increased stress and anxiety, Jimenez said: “There’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of things out of our control: that’s the basis of anxiety.”
To try to counter those feelings, Jimenez suggests focusing on “what’s real, what’s true and what we do know.”
Tips for supporting your kids’ mental health:
- Stay connected and supportive as a family: Do things together that everyone can enjoy.
- Create a sense of normalcy: Even if some things in life feel anything but normal.
- Highlight kids’ ability to adapt and their successes at doing so. “Those are skills we want children to develop to succeed as adults,” Jimenez said.
- Do regular check-ins with your children, “even if they seem OK,” she said. “Prioritize carving out some time, maybe at the end of the day, to ask: How are you doing? How are you feeling about things?”
- Listen to the answers you get, and validate their feelings. That might sound like: “I hear you. It makes sense that you feel that way. There is a lot of unknown.”
When to seek additional support
Jimenez emphasizes being observant and trying to be in tune with your kids.
“Parents know their children. They’ve been there for their development and transitions.” They know when something is not right.
Any marked difference in personality or functioning could be a red flag. Those might include changes to:
- routines or personality
- overall health
- general behavior/habits
If you’re concerned, a good first step is to consult your primary-care provider, who may recommend therapy or counseling. Jimenez pointed out that the purpose of therapy is to build skills and strategies for dealing with challenges we will encounter throughout life.
More from Kaiser Permanente in Seattle’s Child: