How To Reverse The Damage Done By The Pandemic
With most kids and teens going back to in-person learning this past year, many parents thought life was returning to normal, but they were wrong.
More young people are struggling with their emotional and physical health, academics, social confidence, motivation, and interpersonal relationships than before the pandemic. At MPS, we’ve seen this first-hand. All the therapists and I have a caseload of young people or families we are working with to help them address challenges that arose once school started this past academic year.
The good news is that these issues can be overcome, and your parenting can be a big positive factor in helping your child adjust to post-pandemic life.
In today’s blog post, I’ll give you my best advice in the areas that we have seen have become an issue for some kids and teens post-pandemic: emotional health, social confidence, academics, interpersonal relationships, and motivation for pursuing natural talents and interests.
You’re not alone if you’ve noticed that your child has struggled with their emotions since the pandemic started.
A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that nearly half of all young people ages 18-25 struggled with their mental health. Based on CDC data that surveyed 2,809 young people, this study also found that 48% reported that they struggled at some point during the pandemic with anxiety or depression. Of that 48% who reported mental health problems, 39% reported using medication and/or therapy to cope with their emotions, while a whopping 36% stated that they did not seek any kind of support.
When mental health struggles aren’t addressed, they often reach a point where they get dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently found that ER visits for severe eating disorder complications, self-harming behaviors, panic attacks, and drug overdoses spiked for tweens and teens during the pandemic.
If you have a child struggling with their emotions or behaviors, what can you do to help? Here are some tips to help you address these issues.
Don’t Be Afraid To Address Your Child’s Emotions
You don’t know how to support your child through a tough time if you don’t know exactly what is going on, and the only way you know what’s going on with your child is if YOU TALK TO THEM.
As a parent myself, I get it. It’s scary talking to your child about their emotions. So much can go wrong. They might get annoyed with you. You might say something wrong, and then the moment gets wasted. Or the scariest reason might happen – that you find out that your child is really struggling.
But do you want to hear an insider secret from a child psychologist? So many kids and teens have revealed to me that even though they were kind of jerks to their parents, they secretly wanted their parents to ask them what was wrong!
Your child WANTS you to get involved and talk to them – even if they look like you’re the last person they want to be around.
If you need help talking to your child about their anxiety, I have a short online course with videos and an ebook to teach you how to have this conversation. You can find out more about this online course here.
Re-Establish or Revise Routines
Routines are powerful because they create a sense of safety, predictability, and accountability for kids, but many parents relaxed their routines during the pandemic. It made sense – the world relaxed its standards a little bit, so why shouldn’t we?
But having consistent family routines – such as a constant wake-up time, dinner time, homework time, etc. – is associated with increased emotional well-being. In a study looking at 8,500 children and their parents, researchers found that children participating in a consistent family routine experienced a 47% positive increase in their emotional and social health.
Model Self-Care and Set a Positive Tone
One of the best ways to teach your child how to manage their uncomfortable emotions is to model healthy behavior yourself.
What do you do when you get anxious? Angry? Frustrated? Tired?
It’s ok to let your child know how you are feeling and how you plan to deal with it. This shows your child that WE are in charge of our emotions – not the other way around.
For example, if you’re riding in the car with your child and a car cuts you off, making you angry, model to your child a healthy way of dealing with this. You could say something like, “Man, I hate it when people do that – it makes me mad,” and then explain how you will deal with it. You could say something like, “I’m just going to take three deep breathes and remind myself that it doesn’t matter in the long run – it’s not worth it to ruin my afternoon!”
Our kids learn so many of their behaviors from US, so let’s be a positive influence on them.
When To Get Professional Help
Finally, when should you get professional help for your child’s struggle with anxiety or depression?
I usually recommend that you listen to your instinct if your “spidey sense” is going off telling you to make an appointment for a mental health expert. It doesn’t hurt to get an evaluation by an expert and then to let them help.
Other signs that your child or teen needs a mental health evaluation could be:
- Changes to eating, sleeping, or energy patterns
- Disruptive behavior
- Isolating behavior
- Refusal to participate in previously enjoyed activities
- Refusal to be around friends
- Excessive crying or sadness.
Finally, bring your child to therapy if they ASK for an appointment. Many kids and teens are very comfortable with therapy, and we find at MPS that many kids ask their parents to make them an appointment. If your child should ask you, follow through and make that appointment.
Did your child or teen struggle with their grades this past year? Many kids and teens did the best they could to learn important material while at home during quarantine, and when they returned to in-person learning, the knowledge gap between what they should have learned and what they actually learned is striking.
Below are four steps to take to help get your child or teen back on track.
Step 1: Determine if they are struggling with just one area or if it is all subjects.
It’s normal for all kids to have personal strengths and weaknesses – very rarely are kids great in all subjects.
If your child is struggling in just one area, your goal is to help them with that knowledge gap. For example, if your child is getting good grades in all their classes except for math, then you know that they need extra help just in that subject.
On the other hand, if your child struggles with multiple subjects, they will need broader help to address this issue. It could be that they need help with motivation or organization. You can help with these areas at home by creating good study routines and organizational habits.
If your child needs help with motivation, I have a whole course on jump-starting your child’s self-motivation. You can check out that course here.
Another reason your child might be struggling with multiple subjects is that they might have a processing disorder, ADHD, or another learning disorder. In that case, you’ll need to get your child’s teacher and school involved (see step #2).
Step 2: Get the school involved, if possible.
If you have determined that your child need helps with just one subject, partner with your child’s teacher to see how you can support your child together. If your child is in high school, encourage your teen to talk to their teacher to ask for support.
If your child needs help in multiple areas, your child might qualify for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or similar educational support. If this is the case, you’ll need to make a formal request through the school or district. After a request is made, they may determine that your child needs to be tested. This testing can be a long process, so have patience because it is important.
Once the testing is done and you’ve had a chance to sit down with your child’s teacher and other professionals, you can help your child by following through on the report’s recommendations.
Step 3: Get a Tutor
Tutoring makes such a big difference, but I see so few families utilizing this support.
Tutoring can indeed be expensive. Many good quality tutors know their stuff – and charge accordingly.
However, you don’t always have to hire an expensive tutor. I’ve seen many kids increase their grades when their parents hired a young person in the family – an older sibling or cousin – to sit with the child while they do their work.
These young people aren’t trained tutors, but they can help with basic homework questions. They can assist your child by re-focusing them when they get distracted, answering basic questions about homework directions and strategies, or helping with organization. Sometimes just having a “homework buddy” helps.
Step 4: Have a positive and Encouraging Attitude.
Finally, keep an upbeat, positive attitude. If you believe in your child, then they’ll believe in themselves.
Keep your expectations realistic. It might not be realistic for your child to get an A in math, but it might be more practical to get a C while keeping their other grades As and Bs. For now, focus on your child’s effort and not on the grade.
Finally, don’t label your child – they’ll magically live up to the label you create for them. Refrain from the following labels:
- “Just not good at math”
- “Can’t pay attention”
- “Won’t do her work”
- “Writing just isn’t his thing”
Try these encouraging phrases instead:
- “You’re trying so hard, and I’m proud of you.”
- “This test wasn’t so good, but next time will be better because of all the effort you’re putting in.”
- “No one is good at everything – it’s ok that you do well in math, but writing takes more effort.”
I can’t tell you how many times a teen or young person has come into my office over the past year and exclaimed that they forgot how to be with people. They found it challenging to connect with adults and people their own age.
I’ve noticed four areas where young people are struggling the most, and I’m going to describe those four areas and then give ideas on how to address those areas. The goal here is to help your child feel comfortable being part of a community again. It’s really important that young people feel that they are accepted in a community of family and peers. Kids and teens who feel “different,” “ignored,” or “rejected” tend to develop lifelong problems with developing positive and close relationships with peers, bosses, and romantic partners later in life.
That doesn’t sound like a fun life for your child or teen, right? So let’s talk about the four areas of struggle now.
Struggle #1: Your child says that they don’t have any friends.
If your child has always struggled to make friends or had friends before the pandemic, but those friends are no longer part of their life, then now is the time to coach your child in learning how to make new friends.
The first thing you’ve got to do is get your child around people their age whom you think would make good friends. I always point this out because sometimes parents will complain to me that their kids have friends that they don’t like. If that’s the case, then get them around kids that you DO like – and to do this, as the parent, you’ve got to be proactive here and get them involved in an extracurricular activity. Over time, a reluctant and introverted child or teen will make friends with someone in the extracurricular activity.
What do I mean by extracurricular activity? I’m talking about any organized and consistent activity done outside of academics.
It could mean:
- A sport
- A club like boy scouts or girls scouts
- Joining the band or orchestra at school (my daughter played violin and then cello in her school orchestra)
- A part-time job for high schoolers (which I HIGHLY recommend)
- Student government
- Dance classes
- Community service clubs for kids
- A church group
- School clubs like acadec, choir, debate club, drama club, etc.
Consider your child’s natural interests or talents when considering an extracurricular activity, and prepare yourself for having to coach them in the life skill they’ll need to be successful in this activity. Don’t assume your child will be successful as soon as you sign them up – be their coach if they need it.
Struggle #2: Kids who don’t seem interested in friends anymore
So does your child or teen have friends, but they don’t seem interested or motivated to get together with them anymore? I’ve seen this scenario a lot at my office this year too.
Some kids and teens have gotten comfortable interacting with their peers as little as possible, and the antidote here is to make an effort to initiate get-togethers as much as possible. Also, model to your child how you make time for your own circle of friends, too.
So what are some ideas to initiate get-togethers?
- If your child is in elementary school, plan a craft or other activity and invite one or more friends over after school to do the activity
- If your child is in middle school, suggest they invite a friend over for a make-your-own-pizza and movie night
- If your child is in high school, order pizza and allow them to invite friends over, and give them some space.
The point here is that you might have to get involved to get them out of the habit of isolating themselves from the world. Encourage them in a positive way that they have great talents and interests that need to be shared with the world around them.
Struggle #3: Kids who don’t want to be with parents or family
Ok. The next struggle I’ve noticed is kids who don’t want to hang out with their parents or other family members. Now, the pandemic can’t be solely blamed for this struggle – you know that many teens prefer to be alone in their rooms – but the pandemic certainly made this issue worse for many families.
I have two tips for you to repair this important relationship: consistent family time and attention to missed milestones.
Consistent family time
When getting together as a family is predictable for all family members, consistent family time is something that I believe is key to Modern Parenting. I dive deep into this topic in podcast #10, called How To Build and Warm and Positive Parent-Child Relationship. I invite you to listen to that episode for lots of great advice on rebuilding a struggling relationship with your child. (and I share some personal stories of how I created consistent family time in my own family).
You’ve got to have predictable times when your child knows that you prioritize spending time with them. Some examples of consistent time include:
- Family dinners
- Weekly board games nights
- Daily afternoon walks around the neighborhood (with the family dog too!)
- Commute by car to school
- Video game challenges
- Watching a favorite family tv show together each week
- Good morning/good night/hello texts for parents whose kids spend time with their other parent.
The point here is to create a routine that: 1) is easy for you to perform regularly, 2) is predictable, 3) and allows you and your child to focus on each other (little time with phones, tablets, etc.). Even if your child appears to dislike these family times together and tries with everything they’ve got to get out of them, keep these times a priority – they go a long way in maintaining a close relationship with your child.
Make up for missed milestones
The pandemic meant that we had to cancel, minimize, or tweak important milestones for our kids. Everything from holidays, birthdays, graduations, and achievements had to be celebrated differently.
My family was no exception. We celebrated my son’s graduation from USC in 2020 by ordering Olive Garden, having him dress up in his graduation regalia, and watching the commencement address in our living room. We did our best to make this occasion special, but it still didn’t feel the same (just to complete the story – my son got to graduate in-person at the Coliseum during a “make-up” graduation a year later – a year after he started law school!).
Many kids got robbed of experiencing some significant milestones, which has made them feel “stuck” in life and unappreciated. As such, it’s time to focus on acknowledging these milestones again.
Did you tell your child you would celebrate something when the pandemic was over? Now’s the time to fulfill that promise.
Was your child unable to finish their sporting activity when they were doing so well? Acknowledge the heck out of them now, so they feel what a great accomplishment that was.
Do you usually visit family in another state, but the pandemic kept you home? If you feel comfortable, resurrect this tradition, and put it on the calendar this summer.
Motivation and Personal Goals
Getting kids and teens motivated to pursue personal goals and worthwhile activities is challenging in the best of times. Still, the isolation of the pandemic really took it up a notch.
I’ve observed too many teens in my office over the past year who have become too comfortable with “opting out of life.” This is where some kids and teens would rather stay home, away from friends and activities, and isolate themselves. They’re doing this because it feels safer than risking the chance that they might feel uncomfortable feelings out in the “real world.”
For example, I had a teenage patient who started to “opt-out of life” by staying in online school when in-person classes became an option. She stopped texting her friends as much, stopped participating in extracurricular activities, and developed anxiety about leaving her house to run errands.
Whether your child is in an online school, home school, traditional in-person school, or something in between, you’ve got to make an effort to develop their passions and interests. Below are a couple of tips to jump-start their motivation muscle.
Explore natural talents and interests
Start re-invigorating your child’s motivation by making it a point for them to participate in an extracurricular activity that matches a natural talent or interest. This activity can be structured like joining a soccer team or a casual activity such as volunteering at the local animal shelter on weekends.
If you don’t know where to start…just start somewhere. It’s ok if your child starts something and doesn’t like it. If that happens, move on to the next thing, but have an attitude that they need to participate in some activity or hobby because that makes them a healthy and interesting person.
If your child isn’t entirely on board with joining an extracurricular activity, the best thing you can do is make it part of your family routine. Don’t trust that your child will automatically remember meeting times, fee due dates, and game schedules.
For example, if you know that your child has soccer practice every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00, build your family routine around this activity. Don’t drop your child off at practice and run errands – be interested and supportive of this activity.
Balance online time vs. offline time
By focusing on balancing online time vs. offline time, you’ll be promoting a healthy motivation for worthwhile activities.
Pretty much every kid and teen has a natural tendency to spend their time on easy and enjoyable activities. Video games, social media, and YouTube all fall into this category, so you’ve got to make an effort to teach your child how to balance these downtime activities with responsible ones.
I have several podcast episodes that take a deep dive into putting boundaries around online activities. I invite you to listen to those to learn how to help your child develop a healthy balance with these activities.
This is a lifelong skill that your child needs to learn NOW because if they don’t, they risk developing into young adults who don’t know how to create and pursue personal goals.
The take-home message here is that many kids struggle in one or more areas after experiencing the isolation of the pandemic, BUT this struggle can be temporary.
YOU can make all the difference in your child’s life by focusing for a short time on where your child struggles. I’ve found that when parents get involved, so many good things happen.
What To Do Next
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