How to Help Children Cope with Depression and Anxiety Right Now

School may be out for summer, but it could be anything but relaxing for kids and teens feeling particularly angsty because of world events right now.

Illustration via Amanda Lucidi. Photo via Getty

Growing up like a “regular kid” is anything but regular these days. From virtual learning to days on end spent with parents and siblings instead of friends and classmates, plus urgent new Black Lives Matter protests (read more on how to speak to kids about the protest movement here) and nonstop fireworks keeping neighborhoods up at night, parents may be wondering how to gauge how anxious kids are and how to help.

On the one hand, children are resilient. But on the other, these are unusual times, and they could be struggling. Here, two Boston-based psychologists offer tips on how to tell if your child is grappling with depression or anxiety, and how to offer the best help.

Take notice if they aren’t enjoying usual activities

We’re all not really participating in our “usual” activities anymore—and if we are, we’re maintaining six feet of distance and wearing a mask. But Carolyn Snell, a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s, says one of the biggest ways to tell if your child is experiencing some type of anxiety or depression is if they start withdrawing from activities they typically enjoy. Alice Connors-Kellgren, a clinical psychologist from Tufts, says another sign of this may be the opposite behavior—like if your kid spends way more time participating in more escapist activities, like an excessive amount of video game playing or endless scrolling through social media. Changes in other types of behavior are also a good indicator something is wrong, like if their appetite has changed, their sleep patterns are disturbed, or even, for younger children, if their toileting behavior is different, Connors-Kellgren adds. She also says an excessive change in energy levels can be a sign something deeper is going on.

Maintain some structure

None of us can stick to our regular schedules, but that doesn’t mean we can’t maintain some type of routine. “Right now kids don’t have the external structure from school and activities, so it’s important to maintain a structure for them,” Snell says. Whether that’s getting up at the same time everyday and eating breakfast as a family or taking a midday walk around the neighborhood, try to make the days as predictable as possible for your child. Another good way to help is to connect with them and ask them what they would like their day to look like. “A good first step is to connect with your child and validate the feelings they’re feeling and thinking,” Connors-Kellgren says. “Through that conversation, you can get a sense of what they might need.” For teens, it could be connecting with friends, and for the younger kids, it might be building more of a routine.

Help children to recognize helpful thoughts vs. irrational worry

We’re all experiencing some level of worry and anxiety, Snell says, and that’s normal and to be expected. She says it’s helpful to point out to children what an irrational fear is and what a valid fear is and to talk about it. “An irrational fear is like being afraid of the dark,” she says. But if that fear has a strong basis in reality, like “I’m scared I won’t ever go back to school again,” then those thoughts and feelings can be helpful to explore together.

Explain what is going on in ways they can understand

If they’re really interested in an activity, hobby, or movie, see how there could be themes or overarching messages of kindness and compassion to others during this stressful time, and explain the situation that way. If you’re struggling to come up with something, there are a lot of good resources and infographics available to help explain to children what is going on with the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, the World Health Organization came out with this adorable “Despicable Me” YouTube clip, narrated by the one and only Steve Carell as Gru. And Boston reported earlier this month about how to talk to your kids about the protests and anti-racism work.

Make wearing a mask into some kind of game (but watch for excessive obsession around cleaning or public safety)

Everyone is making cool masks, so, Snell suggests, why not make a rad super hero mask for your tot? Wearing a mask is challenging enough for all of us that making a fun game out of it could help your child put the mask on and keep it on. Keep in mind though, if your child’s behaviors toward cleaning, mask wearing, or social distancing start leaning more towards obsessive, that’s a sign it’s time to intervene. OCD-type behaviors would be anything that cause extreme distress if not done, or done in a way that is extremely particular, and not productive or beneficial to the child’s health and safety.

Partake in activities as a family

“We’re spending a lot of time together these days, but it’s not necessarily quality time,” Connors-Kellgren says. Giving your child just 30 minutes of your undivided attention could mean the world to them, and would help instill some normalcy into their day. Try taking a family day trip or perhaps heading outside for one of these socially distant summer activities. Just make sure you’re following these guidelines about outdoor recreation. You could even whip out the stand mixer and bake something yummy together—it’s a great way to de-stress.

Be open and honest about the way you’re feeling too

One of the best things you can do for your child is to talk about your own feelings. Let them know they aren’t alone and that you’re also struggling. “Having open conversations with your child can help normalize their experience and label their feelings,” Snell says. She adds it’s equally important to let them take the lead. Be cautious of jumping in and offering suggestions, though. “Ask open-ended questions and mention your observations without judgement,” she recommends. And as always, if you need extra support, there are many great mental health resources online and around Boston ready to offer assistance. One thing both Snell and Connors-Kellgren made sure to mention was that, although kids in each developmental stage are dealing with this differently, we’re all being affected and not any one group has it worse off than the other. Feelings are feelings, and they’re worthy and important to address no matter how small or insignificant they may feel.