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I Don’t Need Research to Know My Kids are Having a Tough Time

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

According to the CDC, “compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health–related visits (to the Emergency Department) for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively” from the start of the pandemic until October of 2020.

Silhouette of Kids

My guess, if you were to casually ask me, is that these numbers have not improved since that time and that we are at the tip of the iceberg of a mental health crisis that will be around for a while. But, you don’t have to ask me to know what your truth is as a parent…you are living it!

Ask most of us what it has been like to parent for the past year and we will probably start with a sigh. While not true for all, parenting through this pandemic has impacted our brains similar to how a brain reacts to trauma. What this means is that our initial reaction to this now long-lasting crisis is either our brain turns to fight-flight mode of activation or our brain falls into a freeze-collapse mode (or we are vacillating between the two). Our children, by sheer effect of how brains mirror one another, are experiencing the same.This reaction to stress shows up in children as vastly different “behaviors.” (Children’s behaviors, by the way, are simply the outward signs of how their nervous system is doing.)

Here are a few ways we see kids responding to this pandemic...see if you can recognize a few of these signs in your own kiddos:

If your child responds in a nervous system state of activation, he or she may show signs of:

  • Increased hyperactivity / inattention / impulsivity

  • Increased inability to tolerate frustration, problem solve, and ergo increased aggression (verbal or physical)

  • Increased defensiveness, negative self-talk, misreading social interactions/ social cues as negative

  • Increased anxiety in general

If your child responds in a nervous system state of freeze-collapse, he or she may show signs of:

  • Decreased motivation to do everyday activities, socialize, or participate in things that used to be fun for them

  • Increased desire for mind-numbing activities like screen time

  • Increased desire to be alone

  • Difficulty making decisions or expressing him/herself verbally

  • Regression -like baby-talk, bed wetting, separation-anxiety, etc.

I’m guessing this blog isn’t telling you anything you aren’t already feeling and you are waiting for the help part to come into play. Let me just say this:

Our nervous systems are pliable! Our childrens’ nervous systems are even more pliable! And falling into a state of activation or collapse is not a problem unless we get STUCK there.

So, then, how do we make sure that our childrens’ nervous systems don’t get stuck in a state of activation or collapse? Here are just a few tips…

  1. Take care of yourself as a parent.

  2. Take care of yourself as a parent.

  3. Take care of yourself as a parent.

This single tip is so important. We learn this as moms even as we are pregnant. We are told that our unborn babies can feel our stress and to try to practice self care and rest. We are told that when you are nursing if you feel stressed, that your feeding baby can sense that and may not latch. Our childrens’ nervous systems are biologically wired to be in tune with ours. In other words, our stress is their stress. In this pandemic, it is no different. Our kids need us to be healthy.

As far as other thoughts, you’ve probably already heard the basics: Make sure your children have a routine, that they are getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and getting exercise...this is all true...but you’ve heard this already.

Try these tips as well:

  1. Participate with your child in a repetitive and rhythmic activity like tossing a ball back and forth, rocking in a chair together, drumming together, playing a turn-taking low-demand game together. Repetitive, relational, and rhythmic activities help to balance our nervous systems together.

  2. Encourage your child to get creative in their play, artwork, or story telling around their experience of the pandemic - reminding them that all their feelings are ok, validating their expressed feelings, and showing outward signs of empathy for their experiences. Remember, validating feelings does not mean that we are agreeing with their outward behaviors. I can validate that my child is angry while also setting limits that he is not allowed to hit others.

  3. Get your child out in nature. Nature is a wonderful way to reset both our own nervous system and our childrens’. You can add fun to it by geocaching so it gives more purpose to your outdoor time.

  4. Know when to ask for help. If you are finding yourself questioning whether or not you need to ask for support around your child’s mental health, the answer is in your parent-gut and you should trust it. If you are searching for a mental health provider, don’t be afraid to ask them questions about how they can help support you and your child and see how that connection feels between the therapist and yourself before your child even gets started.

  5. Take a deep breath. Often. And teach your kids to as well. Simply exhaling deeply can reset our nervous system and lead to more regulation, calm, and rest. Listen to your body - let those shoulders drop from your ears, let your tongue drop from the roof of your mouth, and unclench your jaw...See? You are already on your way! Be well.

Written by our dear friend and colleague, Elizabeth Krotser, LCSW and owner of Nurturing Village.

HLC Therapy Group, LLC is a pediatric therapy provider offering speech, occupational, and physical therapy services in McHenry County and surrounding areas located in Lake in the Hills, IL.

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