By Kathleen Trainor, PsyD
Children all over the country went to school one day, only to be told they were not going back the next. With no preparation, lockers were left full of books, musical instruments abandoned in classrooms, and all sports, school plays, concerts, and after school activities cancelled. Teens left their friends at the end of the school day with weekend plans in place, not knowing they wouldn’t see their friends for many weeks. This began life in quarantine for kids and teens, all due to an invisible virus with a strange name called COVID-19. The super busy day to day life of being a kid in America came to a sudden, unexpected halt. Parents suddenly stayed home all day, making everything in life seem upside down.
After the initial shock, and days became weeks of quarantine, most kids and parents have adjusted somewhat to the change. Some things are positive for kids. More free time, more sleep, healthier meals, more family time, less stress. Kid’s chronic headaches, stomach aches, and bags under the eyes have magically disappeared. Family pets are also very happy to have so much attention!
Staying Well For Teens
The fact that this change was so sudden, the cause invisible, and the end uncertain, have made many teens both anxious and sad. Teenagers and young adults have been particularly hard hit by this due to the losses they have felt. The centers of their lives, their friendships, have suddenly been taken away. Texting and Facetime were great when they were not the only source of contact. Not seeing friends face to face, hanging out, and laughing together are deeply missed.
Most teens think in terms of seasons, tests, projects, grades, performances, and competitions. Spring season and the final term in school have now been erased. All social events they have been looking forward to, including birthday parties, proms, graduations, are all suddenly cancelled. Questions swirl about what the rest of the year will look like for them. The hardest part is no one can answer when or how this will end and if pre-COVID-19 life will ever exist again.
Many teens feel they have adjusted to the day to day, but as this continues, they suddenly find themselves unexpectedly bursting into tears or feeling rage “for no reason”. They alternate between thinking this stay at home order is just an extended vacation, to feeling trapped, sad, and worried about their future. The uncertainty about what this means, when it will end, and will it ever go back to normal frightens them. “Whenever I had questions about life, I could always go to my parents and get answers. Now they just say ‘We don’t know’.”
Identifying and putting words to feelings, both positive and negative, and knowing they are normal, take the power out of them. Feelings can be so mixed up and confusing, sharing them with friends and family can help teens feel less alone. Journaling about this experience may also help, since this is such a unique experience. No teenagers have ever experienced this before, it is historic. Keeping busy with exercise and getting outside, reading, being on screens, contacting friends, listening to music, meditating, and keeping up with school work, and projects can be helpful. Many kids are learning new skills like cooking, baking, and even learning to drive.
Remembering this is temporary, and accepting all the uncertainty, with an awareness that gradually there will be fewer restrictions is difficult, but keeps it all in perspective. When feeling helpless about people getting so sick from this virus, remembering that just staying home is saving lives can help. We may not get back to the normal we knew before COVID-19, but a new normal, outside of quarantine, is coming.
This is a stressful time for teens, who under the best of circumstances, have a tendency for black and white thinking and excessive worry. The longer this goes on, the more teens may experience increased anxiety and depression. Therapists are available to help kids, through telehealth, so they don’t have to leave home to get help.
Know the following warning signs of when to reach out for help:
- Feelings of sadness and anxiety that are not fleeting, but persist, and the desire to isolate and withdraw intensifies.
- Feelings of hopelessness and dread that become overwhelming. This includes having a hard time imagining this will ever end and worrying that the future is bleak.
- Sleeping or eating too much or too little. Finding nothing brings pleasure or joy and feeling irritable most of the time.
- Feeling out of control of strong feelings of anger or sadness, and a desire to want to hurt yourself or someone else. Suicidal thoughts are a sign professional help is needed right away.
Staying Well for Younger Children
Staying well through COVID-19 for younger children is different. Children need structure and consistency or they can get bored and restless. The center of their life, unlike for teens, is not friends, but family. Once over the initial change of being at home all day, new routines replace the old and kids may seem happy to be out of school. This situation, however, can be regressive for children, increasing their dependence on parents. “Shy” children, in particular, may be all too comfortable staying home. They may need to be encouraged to face time with friends to keep socially connected.
Kids at home also need as much independence as possible. Doing chores, playing independently, and using this time to strengthen their ability to be creative, without the long days of being in a classroom, should be encouraged. As restrictions lift, it will be important to provide children with a renewed sense of safety when they are not at home with their parents. Many kids may become more anxious when the next big change comes and they are expected to leave home and parents. The academic delays will be assessed but so should the psychological and social delays enhanced for children who have been home with parents all day.
Staying Well for Parents
The wellbeing of parents is most important now, since anxiety from parents flows down to kids and teens. The stress of parenting and working from home can feel overwhelming. The financial uncertainty that many parents are experiencing only adds to this anxiety. Worries about keeping everyone healthy can feel like an overwhelming responsibility. Self-care, including carving out time alone, is now more important than ever.
When juggling so many demands, reducing expectations and taking one day at a time is crucial for survival through this family quarantine. For example, If, at the end of the day, any parent who hasn’t yelled (too much), didn’t run away, (for too long) fed the kids, (peanut butter and jelly counts) and got some work done, (even a little) that’s a “good enough” day in quarantine. Self-care also means reaching out to friends and family and sharing feelings without shame. We are all in this together. Recognizing the positive in each day (including more quality family time) is also important. Knowing when anxiety or depression is becoming too overwhelming and reaching out for professional help to get through this difficult time may be necessary. Parents taking care of themselves first are then more able to take care of their families.
Living in the age of COVID-19 has brought an unprecedented change to children and parents that will never be forgotten. Hopefully this new normal will bring us closer and stronger as we move forward to the other side of this global pandemic.
Kathleen Trainor, PsyD, is a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of Calming Your Anxious Child: Words to Say and Things to Do.