Here’s what parents need to watch for when it comes to children’s mental health

By GENEVIEVE SHAW BROWN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — There’s plenty of advice when it comes to improving adults’ mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.

Far less talked about is what children are going through. After all, they’re just kids — what could they possibly be worried about, right?

Wrong.

May 7 is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day and experts say kids are struggling with many of the same feelings as adults: grief, anxiety, depression and loss.

“It’s difficult to tell what [behaviors] can be attributed to circumstance and what is something that’s potentially brewing that might need more support outside the home,” said Dr. Stephanie Samar, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

Any feeling an adult struggles with is one a child can experience as well, Samar said. While your children are not necessarily reflecting your feelings — for example, you are grieving, so they are too — they are experiencing the pandemic in their own way. Anxiety, depression and loss are all common feelings among both children and adults.

“Validation of their feelings is important. As we move toward summer and camps are canceled, we have to revalidate,” she said. “Everyone is not fine.”

Red flags to watch for include children withdrawing from friends and activities they previously enjoyed and changes in sleeping patterns and eating habits, such as weight gain or loss.

“Are they sleeping because they’re bored and have more time?” Samar said parents should ask themselves. If so, that’s different than if it’s because of mood and depression, she said.

If parents have not set a schedule throughout the day, they should.

“I don’t mean a school schedule or a strict activity schedule,” she said. “I’m talking about anchors throughout the day. Eating at roughly the same time, going to bed the same time each night.”

If the family has a schedule already or sets one and still sees the kids struggling, it might be time for more intervention.

Samar also said to watch out for kids who are having trouble with simple self-care, like getting out of their pajamas.

“One or two days is fine,” she said. “A week is concerning.”

Her advice to parents: First, she said, they need to give themselves a break.

“We’re not trying to ace quarantine,” Samar said. “Try to create off-screen time activities and get outside with the kids.”

She also suggested board games as a way for both parents and kids to connect and recharge.

For parents of children with mental health or learning differences, it’s especially important for parents to keep a close eye.

“These are the most at-risk kids,” Samar said. “Kids who were already struggling academically or with emotions.”

Labeling emotions and asking lots of questions can help parents and kids come through this challenging time more easily.

“We trying to survive this, not make advances in our lives,” Samar said. “Stick to a routine as much you can to maintain mental health.”

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