Helping kids navigate pandemic emotions

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the mental health of children.

The push to reopen schools isn’t just about education. It’s also about children’s physical and emotional wellness. The pandemic has taken quite a toll on both.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And that’s driving up visits to the emergency department. Cases of kids having a mental health crisis rose over 30 percent last year compared with 2019.  

WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney explains what’s behind that trend.

AUDIO: [Kids playing]

KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: For 9-year-old Charlie Lewis, this day started like many others: eat breakfast, get dressed. Then it’s time to ruffle some sisters’ feathers before homeschool lessons.

AUDIO: [Kids rough-housing]

But, his three younger sisters quickly turn their attention to Barbies…

NOELLE AND QUINN: Look, look, all the ballerinas are going to be posing. It’s fine if you put my ballerinas in your case… 

…and the feather-ruffling suddenly isn’t all that satisfying for Charlie. He wanders around the house trying to find something to do—and looking a little like a caged animal, pacing. It’s a wet, cold day in Dallas, so he can’t go outside. He misses a lot from pre-pandemic life: playing at friends’ houses, visiting stores, going to the Arboretum with his grandmother. And he’s worried about his family’s health. His grandparents live nearby, and they recently came down with COVID-19.

CHARLIE: Yeah, I was worried and afraid they might die… 

And he wonders if his immediate family will be okay, too.

CHARLIE: I am scared that my family will get sick and maybe one of them will die. I just wish things would go back to normal.

Charlie says he knows they’re doing the right things physically. They’re limiting their time in public, washing hands, and so on. But he may not realize he and his sisters have an asset in the mental battle against the pandemic: supportive parents.

Texas-based licensed professional counselor Tiffany Amerson says parents need to equip kids with the vocabulary to deal with their anxiety or frustrations.

AMERSON: They don’t understand how to talk about their fears in a healthy way. And so that is our job as parents is to start that. And that’s kind of hard when we’re dealing with it ourselves. 

Dr. Don McCulloch is a clinical psychologist who teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He agrees with Amerson that children sometimes absorb their parents’ anxieties.

MCCULLOCH: The level of anxiety could be something that they’re inheriting from their parents. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a fair amount of adults that are anxious…

But, McCulloch is quick to clarify, if your kids are struggling, that doesn’t mean it’s your fault.

MCCULLOCH: There’s a sense in which even if the parents are handling their anxiety well and their parenting well, it’s really quite possible that children without pre-existing anxiety are just sensing that something is off.

Something is off. Disruption on the level of a pandemic can be traumatic for kids. Dr. Ruth Kuchinsky-Smith has experience as a school psychologist, among other roles. She currently teaches at Cairn University in Pennsylvania. She said the biggest mental obstacles for kids may manifest due to their sudden lack of social interaction.

KUCHINSKY-SMITH: I think that of all of the problems that are happening, the fact that they can’t interface with their friends and just hang out and be with them is difficult.

McCulloch cited a UCLA study showing higher-than-ever stress levels among incoming college freshmen even before COVID-19 was on anyone’s radar.

MCCULLOCH: It’s sort of a perfect storm situation because what we had was in society prior to the pandemic, you had increasing numbers of anxiety that was being documented by therapists.

His friends who are clinical child psychologists have told him their schedules have been packed for months with new patients. Kids often exhibit resistance to going to school, but for the first time, colleagues are reporting children running away from school, unable to deal with changing classroom procedures, not wanting to be separated from their parents, or afraid of germs. And kids are reacting more frequently and dramatically to what might have been minor disappointments pre-pandemic.

In older children, child psychologists and therapists are seeing increasing isolation behaviors.

MCCULLOCH: So if the child sort of has the option or choice of their own room, they may just may isolate themselves more and just not want to have to kind of deal with it.

Kuchinsky-Smith also worries about the digital influence of staying at home. Parents may be turning on the TV more than usual for stir-crazy kids. And schools are offering virtual lessons. But all that TV, computer, and tablet time may have long-term impacts.

KUCHINSKY-SMITH: I think about when we’ve had a lot of screen time, it is to the detriment of eye contact and interaction with each other, and that was missing prior to the pandemic. But I think it’s increased now that we’re not able to look each other eye-to-eye because we’re on screen time. 

She said kids may need some social coaching when life returns to normal. In the meantime, the experts I spoke with suggest having regular conversations with kids about how they’re handling things emotionally. Talk about what we can be grateful for. And pray together.

Tiffany Amerson urges parents to raise a hand—engage a counselor or therapist—if they see their child spiraling.

AMERSON: If you believe that your children are being impacted by this, don’t wait. You will never say in the future, “Man, I’m sorry that I got my children help sooner,” but I have oftentimes heard parents regret not intervening at an earlier time.

If this all sounds like a lot, don’t despair. Kuchinsky-Smith and McCulloch stress how resilient most kids really are. McCulloch pointed to a study conducted by Dr. George Bonnano after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Some kids who suffered trauma continued to struggle for years. Some improved after a few months. But the vast majority didn’t exhibit any ongoing effects. He expects the same after the pandemic.

MCCULLOCH: For some, it’ll be a long-term, difficult thing, depending on where these things hit developmentally and what the actual events were for them, but for the majority, we’ll get through it.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Katie Gaultney.

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) In this Wednesday, April 8, 2020, photo, bicyclists wear pandemic masks while riding in Portland, Maine. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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