Psychologist: Kids feel stress of pandemic too
Sara Boilen, founder of Sweetgrass Psychological Service, in her office on Friday, January 4, in Whitefish. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)
Daily Inter Lake | May 20, 2020 1:00 AM
As adults around the country continue to adjust to the new normal brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s younger generation is also having to navigate its way through a changed world. Forced to stay at home, away from their friends and teachers, today’s children are facing new normal that can be full of stress and anxiety, but also presents an opportunity for more quality time with immediate family.
Kara Stansbury, a family therapist at Sweetgrass Psychological Services in Whitefish, says that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected children of all ages, for better or worse.
“We really are seeing a mixed bag right now,” she said. “I think my 5-year-old son said it best when he told me that he is really enjoying spending more time with me and his dad, but that he really misses his friends from school. For some kids, school is great. It’s where they get their social time and where they feel engaged and successful. For other kids, school can be a large source of stress. A lot of kids struggle with social anxiety, learning disorders or just a high level of stress at school and that can really affect their mental health. For some kids, school can be very overwhelming and we can actually see them do better when they are not in that environment. We are seeing varied reactions to the shut down across the board.”
Dr. Sara Boilen, clinical psychologist and owner of Sweetgrass Psychological Services, says she is also seeing a mix of reactions to the shutdowns and stay-at-home orders among her patients and her own children.
“Our collective anxiety in the community can be felt by children, even if they don’t quite understand exactly what is going on. A lot of people are worried about the academic impact of all of this, but I think that in a lot of ways, the social and emotional impact could be much more profound. Kids are susceptible to loneliness too. They can feel that pandemic isolation angst just the same way adults can. They can be feeling all the things adults are feeling right now,” Boilen said. “There are some benefits, though. There are some kids that are doing better than usual right now. I have talked to a lot of parents that are now able to have lots of great quality time with their family and nobody is in a hurry to go somewhere else. Those people are feeling more connected. It can depend on the day, though. There are good days and then there are days where everyone is falling apart.”
Both Stansbury and Boilen agree that parents are bound to see some regression in behavior and habits among their children as they try to adjust to the changing world around them.
“If you are noticing more conflict or your child regressing in some ways, that is to be expected. Stress in the household is going to be higher overall for the most part and that is going to affect children,” Stansbury said. “As parents, when we see a behavior change in our child, we are afraid it will be that way forever. Parents should just remember that the changes are usually temporary.”
“Kids can manifest difficulties in different ways than grownups. Just like depression can look like irritability, so can anxiety. Sometimes kids have a hard time identifying what they are feeling and helping them figure out what they are feeling can be important,” Boilen added. “Trust your gut. If you think your kid is having a tougher time than most, reach out for help. There is no harm in asking for help.”
As children adjust to their new normal and try to figure out what to do with all of their new-found free time, Boilen says that communication is the best tool available to parents to help their children cope. She also says that it is important for parents to listen to the children’s concerns and not dismiss them.
“Talking with your children about what is going on is really important. It is also important to not dismiss their feelings. If your kid says they miss their friends, don’t just say ‘oh, you will see them again.’ Try to validate their experience and say that you understand and that you miss your friends too,” she said. “Also, if your kid asks questions that you don’t know the answer to, it is OK to tell them that you don’t know. If your children are having trouble, it’s OK. We are all having trouble with all of this. If your kid really starts isolating or withdrawing or starts having trouble sleeping, that can be a sign of trouble. Kids that get out of their routine and don’t seem to enjoy anything anymore or are becoming very irritable can be having problems with depression. It’s important to talk with your children and ask them how they are feeling.”
To help parents as they try to navigate these tough times, Sweetgrass Psychological Services does have a document available on their Facebook page with a list of resources for a number of concerns, including education, housing, employment, medical treatment and more.
While Stansbury and Boilen can only deal with issues as they arise, neither are certain what the lasting psychological effects the pandemic will have on children.
‘We’ve never seen anything like this before, so we really don’t know what the lasting effects will be. My hope is that we will see a more resilient group of folks coming out of this. I would be looking for signs of hypervigilance or anxiety in kids to make sure they are adjusting well and are not stuck with the fear a lot of people are feeling,” Boilen said. “I have some hope that perhaps this will be somewhat of a tide change and that the impact of this pandemic might be that we are more aware of mental health issues and able to talk about feelings and emotions. Maybe this generation of children will grow up with a lot more awareness of these issues and with a better ability to cope with them.”