Helping Kids Cope with Mental Disorders and School Amidst COVID-19
School and mental health are two areas in children’s lives that have been the most negatively impacted by the pandemic. The CDC has reported that an estimated 1 in 5 U.S. children experience a mental disorder in a given year, including anxiety, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and behavioral disorders. Now, a year into the pandemic, the rates of mental health issues have increased even more. In 2020, there was a 31% increase in mental health-related E.R. visits for children aged 12-17 since before the pandemic. Diminished social norms, fears about the virus, and the absence of in-person contact (it has been nearly a year since half of U.S. students have stepped foot on a school campus) have contributed to the escalated mental health crisis affecting kids. When the time comes for them to return to school, the adjustment will be a challenge.
Kids at a Crossroads
Although some of the adverse effects of the pandemic are slowly starting to improve, the mental health impacts may take more time to mend. COVID-19 has been a traumatic stressor for numerous kids. And while glimpses of “normality” are beginning to show, many kids will find that the things they have been looking forward to resuming will not immediately return to the state they remember before the pandemic, including school. Children who have been learning remotely are facing a significant transition as they return to school.
Helping Kids Return to School with a Mental Health Disorder
When preparing your child to return to school, it’s important to remember that most kids are likely to experience some anxiety about returning to school, whether they have a mental disorder or not. Also, many school districts have planned steps to help their students adjust to being back on campus.
It’s also important to keep in mind that many teachers care about their students and want them to succeed. But most teachers are not trained to identify early warning signs of mental health issues and appropriately interact with students facing such challenges. Teachers need support from the top-down, which starts with the parents, to help kids be successful.
Be a Proactive Advocate
If your child has a mental illness or behavioral disorder, it’s essential to reach out to the teacher or counselor before they head to the classroom. Having a meeting with your child’s school as early as possible can help ensure that your child’s teacher understands the diagnosis and can appropriately interact with the challenges that your child faces. If your child is a teenager, it can be good to include them in the meeting so that they’re involved in the process and can advocate for themselves.
You can also request an Individualized Education Program (IEP) evaluation if you feel your child needs additional support. Some students may be eligible for a 504 plan instead of an IEP. To begin the IEP process and request special education services for your child, you can write a letter to a child’s teacher or principal to inform them about your concerns related to your child’s educational process.
Including your child’s therapist in the process, if they have one, is also crucial. Your child’s therapist can also help advocate for your child and provide more information to the teacher and school to ensure that your child receives the support they need.
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Use the Three Es to Help Your Child Know They’re Not Alone
Along with preparing your child for the new normal, including returning to school, it’s also important to let your child know that you care and that they’re not alone. Using the Three Es (Empathy, Empowerment, and Engagement) is a framework that I use in my therapy practice that I recommend for all parents to use now.
- Empathy – Seek to understand your child’s perspective from their viewpoint. Even if you think you know how your child is feeling or what they are thinking, you should give them the chance to tell you. It’s not uncommon for a child to put on a facade to hide how their feelings because they want their parents to believe they are happy or that nothing is wrong. It’s important to ask open-ended questions to ensure you understand how your child feels. For example, to get a better idea about how your child feels about returning to school, you might ask, “What are some things that you’re most looking forward to about going back to school?” And you could follow that question with, “What are the things that you’ll miss most about attending school from home?”
- Empowerment – Once you understand how your child feels, you can empower them to develop gameplans to ease their anxiety and address anything that may be bothering them. It can be helpful to have them role-play specific worries or concerns that they may have regarding situations that they may encounter.
- Engagement – Help your child carry out their plans by providing support and consistently checking in.
Along with the above tips, you can help guide your child by showing kindness, teaching them to be flexible, and coaching them not to be too hard on themselves or others.
About the Author
Danielle Matthew is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who helps adolescents, adults, couples, and families who are in pain due to issues such as anxiety, severe stress, low self-esteem, or depression. With over 20 years of experience, Danielle authored Amazon Parenting Best-Seller, The Empowered Child: How to Help Your Child Cope, Communicate, and Conquer Bullying, and is the Director of The Empowerment Space Bullying Therapy Program in Los Angeles. Featured in Huffington Post and TODAY.com, Danielle has appeared on Fox, ABC, and CBS Morning Shows and Mom Talk Radio. Danielle is also part of Team Project RISE (Recognizing and Improving Support for Educators), an independent group of professionals that advocate for mental health identification services for students amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
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