When I read articles about helping youth during the pandemic, I am struck by the finding that helping families can be even more important than helping youth individually. I have noticed this in my own practice but to see this article from the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry rally drives home the fact that my observations are similar to those of my colleagues in other parts of North America.
In circumstances where a child or youth is struggling, a clinician can identify a parent who is struggling – and not because of the child’s difficulties. The pandemic is stressful. As cases increase around the world, with no end in site and the ongoing concern that schools might be closed at any time, parents are worried about their family’s income and welfare. It is so much harder to organize a meal, groceries, appointments and work with children and youth home for the day. Expecting people to sit at their schoolwork all day is unrealistic. That does not happen in schools because teachers realize that their students need to break up all that concentration with active play and fun and rests.
In my practice, I hear from families worried about a young person’s future being impacted forever. For the second year in a row, youth are wondering, ”Should I wait another year before starting college?” Every young person is beginning to realize that they learn more effectively in a classroom. As one of my patients said last week:
“I never thought I got much out of school, but now that I can’t be in class every day, I am not finishing my work at all. “
As this article outlines, one of the most helpful things we can do for the mental health of children and youth is ensure that their parents are managing their stress.
Once parents are supported, then it is necessary to evaluate how children’s pre-existing mental health problems are being exacerbated by the pandemic and bring those escalations under control. Mental health professionals spend a lot of time during the pandemic differentiating between disorders that are the result of COVID-19 stress as compared to other mental health conditions. Children from marginalized families are more vulnerable to mental health problems related to COVID-19 and, of course, the children of frontline workers may be justifiably worried about their parents getting sick.
In a time when we are separated from extended family, many of us are even more aware of how much we depend upon our families. If we didn’t realize before the pandemic, we are now realizing the truth of this Irish Proverb:
“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”