Discussions around mental health issues among youths have come to the forefront in the last few months, especially with the River Valley High School incident where a student who previously attempted suicide was charged with murder.
The pandemic has also expounded the need for being more aware of children’s mental health in general. After all, it has caused multiple disruptions to their routine and structure, especially when home-based learning was implemented.
Children are also experiencing reduced interaction with peers, with CCAs having gone online and parents still afraid to send kids for classes or bring them out.
“The pandemic has caused a blanket of invisible stress which many people may not be fully aware of,” notes Frances Yeo, a child psychologist at Thomson Counselling and Thomson Kids. “Childhood and adolescence is when emotions, personality and inner growth are being developed. Any form of stress can cause disruption or tension in how these develop.”
Given how important your little one’s mental well-being is, we outline how to talk to kids about COVID, practical ways to help them cope amidst the uncertainty, as well as when and where to seek help.
Explaining COVID-19 to children
With so much misinformation and fear-mongering news out there, it’s essential to provide your child a proper, age-appropriate explanation of the virus.
Frances advises to keep the language simple and use developmentally-appropriate terms. For starters, you could explain to them that COVID-19 is an illness that is similar to the flu, and that the virus is spread through droplets such as saliva.
Explain that the virus can spread easily from person-to-person, but that many young people who get it do not become very sick and have mild to moderate symptoms. You may also mention that government restrictions like school closures were in place to prevent a lot of people from getting sick all at once.
“Reduce unnecessary fears, as some children can develop inappropriate fears to being contaminated,” adds Frances. “Help them understand that handwashing and not rubbing their eyes and putting fingers into their mouth can keep them safe from the virus.”
Behavioural changes to look out for
As a parent, be mindful of warning signs that your child is not coping well mentally and might require intervention. Frances mentions them below:
- Social withdrawal. For example, hiding in one’s room and not wanting to interact with others. Also, refusing to go out of the house for school or outings.
- Addiction to mobile and computer devices.
- Your child is easily irritated by minor events, and has increased conflicts with friends and family member.
- Expressions of anxiety and panic.
- Separation anxiety in young children. They may appear clingier, socially withdrawn, hesitant to explore things and seemingly fearful of going outside.
- Loss of interest in activities that used to excite them.
- Paranoia and fear of being contaminated by germs and the virus, and the development of compulsive washing and cleaning behaviours.
- Loss of interest in schoolwork, and a deterioration in academic performance.
- Loss of appetite.
- Thoughts of death and suicide.
Practical ways to help children cope
Frances also outlines numerous ways you can support your child during the pandemic. These include:
#1 Encouraging children to have physical or outdoor time
COVID-related restrictions like dining-in closures and the ban on leisure travel has led to more families being cooped up at home. This may have adverse effects on the mental health of both kids and adults.
“Most of us live in small apartments,” notes Frances. “This means more stress as more people are home at the same time.” As such, encourage your mini-me to get some fresh air on a daily basis, such as sports at the park or a trip to the nearby mall.
“Some children and teens do not like to go out, so parents will need to plan outings which their child will enjoy,” Frances says. “For example, going to the mall to buy something they want.”
#2 Listening to your child
Parents also need to listen and attune themselves to their children’s underlying feelings, such as their fears and frustrations.
“Listening and attuning is different from giving children advice,” Frances points out. “Many parents listen and quickly delve into dishing out advice or their own opinions about what the child has said. Instead, parents need to listen without any judgement and accept what their child says is true.”
So the next time your child opens up about what’s troubling them, refrain from telling them what to do or trying to explain away their emotions. Let them know that you’ll always be around to provide a listening air, and empathise with what they’re going through.
#3 Spending quality time together
Whilst your child may experience reduced social interaction with their peers thanks to the pandemic, you can still take the opportunity to bond with them. Building up the parent-child relationship also leads to more trust, meaning they’ll likely open up to you when faced with difficulties.
Bond by taking an interest in what they like doing, suggests Frances. For example, watching their favourite television programme with them or doing fun craft activities together.
You can also take them to a kid-friendly restaurant for their favourite food, or arrange visits to family attractions such as the zoo, Gardens by the Bay or an indoor playground.
#4 Taking care of your own mental and physical health
“Parents need to take care of themselves first before they can take care of their children,” emphasises Frances. “When parents are coping with stress well, they are mentally available for their child’s emotions.”
As such, remember to get a good amount of sleep and regular exercise. Other means of self-care to reduce stress and anxiety may include seeing a therapist, embarking on a healthier diet, sharing your worries with your spouse and trusted friends, indulging in a spa session or unwinding with your favourite music and podcasts.
#5 Helping kids differentiate between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms
“Unhealthy coping styles usually create problems instead of solving them,” Frances explains. “Using a negative coping mechanism only masks the stress and difficult emotions for a short period of time. It actually cause more problems in the long run either by maintaining and strengthening the current ones.”
Some examples of such unhealthy coping mechanisms include avoiding stressful situations, addiction and deliberate self-harm.
Encourage your child to seek out positive ways to deal with what they’re facing, like opening up to you and being honest about what they’re feeling.
Where to get help
As Frances notes, it may be time to seek professional help if there’s a sudden change in your child’s behaviour or drastic deterioration in their academic performance. Also, if they experience suicidal thoughts, anxiety, distress and feeling sad and depressed regularly.
“If parents are unsure, it's better to make an appointment for a consultation with a mental health professional who can advise if the problem is severe and warrants treatment,” says Frances. “Mental health problems are easier to treat when the problem is presented early.”
She also warns that the longer a mental health problem occurs in children, the longer it takes for them to overcome it. Seeing a psychologist early can often prevent serious problems occurring and affecting children’s emotional and psychological well-being and personality development.
Parents can consider consulting with a child psychologist at centres like Thomson Counselling, which helps children, teenagers and families address emotional and behavioural problems that may interfere with learning and general well-being.
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