This year has been challenging for all of us, as COVID-19 has impacted our lives in ways we have never experienced before. But as Vancouver-based child psychiatrist Dr Ashley Miller reminds us, social isolation has been especially hard on some of our kids and teens. Miller cautions that social isolation can even have effects on heart health and mental health way into the future, and “we are seeing increased symptoms of anxiety and depression in our young people”.
With anxiety increasing for some parents and kids with schools reopening in the fall, Dr Miller believes there’s an opportunity for families to work together to help prepare for when that day arrives.
Dr Miller is one of a group of 250 physicians working to improve care and services for child and youth mental health, as part of a Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use (CYMHSU) Community of Practice, supported in partnership by Doctors of BC and the BC government. Dr Miller is also a parent of young teens.
As a healthcare professional, and a mother, Dr Miller is keen to do what it takes to stop the spread of COVID-19, while also ensuring the mental health needs of children and young people are met during the pandemic and in the long term – and social interaction is a big part of that. The balancing act between physical safety and mental wellness is top of mind for her.
“When phase three began and kids and teens could see friends again I saw how much happier they were. I could see the joy flow back into them,” she says.
With COVID cases increasing since the province relaxed restrictions, Miller stresses the importance of staying the course with our kids.
“If we stop physical distancing or tell ourselves: “I don’t make that much of a difference” or “numbers are good, this won’t hurt,” we risk sliding all the way down into staying home alone again. And our kids and teens need to see some friends. They need the possibility of schools and activities opening in September. They need us to stay healthy. They need their parents’ businesses and workplaces to stay open. They need to see how people can all do difficult things and care for each other, even when we’re tired. This will all end one day, but it isn’t over yet”, she says.
With schools in re-opening in the province this fall, there is some anxiety from both children and parents in the face of many unknowns. Dr Miller shared some concrete steps for parents to prepare for what may lie ahead:
Address your own anxiety
If you are an anxious parent, Dr Miller says addressing your own feelings is the first step towards helping your kids manage their own worries, “the analogy of putting your own oxygen mask on first is a good one for this situation.” Children are emotional sponges. When they sense that we are okay, they begin to relax too. Reach out to friends, families and other parents, and make use of the support services available for parents.
Talk about the protocols
Having an understanding of how we can stay safe, and explaining this to kids is an important aspect of navigating a return to school and other activities, says Dr Miller. As it is with returning to work, or going out to visit businesses, we want to know what precautions have been taken: “We want to know who is in charge, and review that with our kids.”
Learn to sit with uncertainty
Uncertainty is a difficult feeling for all of us to process, but Dr Miller suggests focusing on what we can control with your kids: “Can we control keeping our distance, can we control choosing to wear a mask, can we control washing our hands?” Emphasizing kindness also plays a major role in helping anxious kids reduce their feelings of worry: “How can I be kind, how can I help another child who is struggling?”
Validate and acknowledge feelings and concerns
When it comes to your child’s anxiety, Dr Miller says it’s all about honouring, validating and acknowledging their point of view as legitimate. An example of validating for the anxious child: “You’re feeling anxious about going back to school, and that is understandable right now. Do you have any questions about COVID-19 we can explore together?” If you have a child who is more of a risk-taker, it’s really about empathizing around how frustrating it is to not be able to do things you want to do. “Staying away from so many of your friends must be so hard for you. This has been a long haul and I see that you’re upset. Maybe we can come up with some creative ideas to figure out how you can safely see them and still have fun.”
Create a back-to-school plan and try it out
If your child is going back to in-person learning, bringing them to the school area beforehand is a good way to quell anxious feelings, says Dr Miller. Take transit with them, or go on a bike ride to the school so it feels routine.
Benefits of connecting with friends
Reminding your child of the excitement of connecting safely with friends can help: “That positive connection actually decreases anxiety, it’s really remarkable. I know a youth who is struggling with OCD, and once he started getting out of the house more and doing safe activities with a friend, his symptoms decreased.”
Working to keep our curve down will have a major effect on the mental health of our young people. Dr Miller reiterates,
“Please hear Dr. Henry’s message again through new ears. Stay calm, stay kind, stay safe and know that every time you choose to keep physical distance and connect with fewer people, you are directly helping kids’ mental health now and in the future. By modelling kindness and fostering a sense of community here in BC, we can protect the wellbeing of our young people as we continue adjusting.”