This piece was first published in August of 2022.
Decoding the Crisis
The first day of school is often as exciting for parents as it is for kids. But this year, there’s a growing shadow hanging over families as our children make their annual migration back into classrooms. A new report by the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book backs up a recent declaration by the US Surgeon General that our kids, tweens and teens are in the midst of a mental health crisis. How bad is it? The report shows a 26-percent increase in anxiety and depression for kids ages three to 17 in the US between 2016 and 2020. Some experts are even calling it the ‘next wave of the pandemic.’ This probably isn’t news to the many of you who are seeing the changes in your children - yet have been unable to find psychotherapists, psychologists, and/or psychiatrists with openings. For parents, the situation is frustrating, and perhaps a bit overwhelming. For our our young people; they’re stuck in a cycle of anxiety, sadness and/or debilitating worry —with no clear way out.
The Perfect Storm
Before the Pandemic, mental health concerns were already on the rise for individuals across all ages. Kids/tweens/teens reported experiencing more pressure to achieve, more anxiety about Global Warming, fears about their personal safety and more worry about the future.
When the virus hit, the rates of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders accelerated. Lockdowns isolated our kids and teens, prompting them to spend more time on social media. School became complicated, sleep schedules were disrupted, movement patterns shifted, and individuals were removed from many of the outlets that helped them create a positive sense of self. Also, there was a collective spike in anxiety about Covid-19 as we did not know how it spread, how it affected different populations and age groups, and how to keep our loved ones safe. This complex host of factors resulted in many people, kids especially, feeling lonely, anxious, and not sure how to sit with all the hard emotions.
Kids/tweens/teens sometimes do not know how to talk about scary, hard feelings and thoughts they might be having. It can feel challenging to say those things out loud to the people who care for them. Sometimes, we need to decode their signals, like atypical crying spells, withdrawal from friends and family, refusal or new fear about separating from you, increased complaints about stomachaches/nausea/headaches, shift in food patterns and weight loss. Other times, our littles are really open about their emotions, yet don’t understand how to not feel the way they do.
How to Help
As caregivers, we can offer both emotional and logistical support to little kids who are navigating big emotions. The first approach might be to create space for all of the feelings, good and bad, and to try to embody the stance that emotions are transitory vs permanent. It is better to have the feelings processed than held internally. The second is to validate, validate, validate the feeling your person shares with you vs. try to talk them out of the feeling. A good example would be to use language like, “I can imagine why you are angry/sad/worried about x because…..” When individuals perceive that the person they are talking to “gets it”, the emotional intensity starts to reduce. The third is to try (and it is HARD) to stay calm and grounded as it mirrors to your loved one that you are there with them.
As we navigate back to school, focus on logistics like reestablishing good bedtime routines and removing devices from bedrooms at a specific time. Getting sufficient sleep helps protect against mental health struggles and so, too, does reducing the amount of time spent on social media (Insta, YouTube, TikTok, Snap, etc.). Try to find activities that your child is interested in that include social interaction and connection with peers. It is super helpful for kids/tweens/teens to develop different parts to themselves, and to see themselves as skillful in multiple areas, as it helps protect them if when one part of their lives hits that inevitable bump.
When to Seek Professional Help
If your kid/tween/teen continues to struggle with processing or navigating their emotions and/or thoughts, if they are unable to reenter into activities previously enjoyed, if they have become more rigid in their food patterns, it is likely time to seek support. If you’ve already tried, you no doubt know that the entire mental health care profession is struggling to keep up with the demand - and many of us are fully booked.
Don’t give up.
Appointments may be elusive, but consider partnering with your pediatrician, asking friends for referrals, and checking with your insurance company for a list of providers with availability. Another avenue: your child’s school. Many districts are now aware of the current crisis and are staffing mental health experts to help students regain their footing. If yours isn’t, be proactive, get on multiple waitlists, email the providers back every 4 to 6 weeks to check on availability, be flexible in the timing of the appointment and accepting of virtual visits — and trust that mental health providers are working on overdrive to try and help your children.
Elizabeth Burns Kramer is a Psychologist and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist. She thrives collaborating with individuals, families, and parents to implement strategies, both creative and evidenced-based, that resolve mental health concerns. Dr. EBK has 15+ years of experience and has worked in University Counseling Centers, clinics, treatment centers, and currently works primarily in private practice. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and spends her time outside of the therapy office binge-reading, trying to beat her two kids at Mario Kart, and working hard to keep her latest potted plant alive.