Any other parents out there feeling like they’ve officially hit the pandemic wall? Wishing that this thing called parenting had a refresh button so you can appreciate the little things again. One day.
Sigh. Well, while we all can dream of that day, parenting is feeling really intense in the meantime. Inevitably that means days of your kids throwing a fit, teens who react like you’re THE WORST if you look at them the wrong way, or any one of you breaking out in tears randomly (read: we know it’s you. We’ve been there.)
We’ve all seen the headlines about how the pandemic has affected mental health. So when your kids’ behavior is really trying you, or they’re having trouble keeping up with distance learning, or they seem so anxious or sad—how do you know if they need more help? Are you freaking out about it because you’re juggling a million things, or could it be that your child is struggling with something deeper? And when is it a good idea to reach out to a therapist?
The short answer: There is no right answer. Kids of all ages can benefit from therapy – especially right now – even if there’s no clinical anxiety or depression at play. But there are a few warning signs that your child may benefit from therapy.
When to seek help
1. Your kid is acting out more often
Kids communicate through their behavior. Those full-on meltdowns that make your blood pressure skyrocket? They can actually be one of the clearest indications about what’s going on with your child.
Whether you’re dealing with constant tantrums or your kid just won’t listen, some amount of acting out is developmentally appropriate – and totally expected during a pandemic. But according to child psychiatrist Dr. David Grodberg, Brightline’s Chief Medical Officer, two things can warn you of something bigger going on: increased severity and frequency.
Say your five-year-old normally has a temper. If the tantrums suddenly involve kicking or throwing, or they’re happening hourly instead of daily, it might be more than pandemic-related stress. Same goes if your normally vigilant middle schooler has catapulted into debilitating worry, or if your moody teenager withdraws to their room more than usual. Even if the behavior itself isn’t new, keep an eye out for more intense or frequent ways of expressing it.
2. Family routines are off kilter
Depression and anxiety can mess with routines. But who has a routine that’s working during a pandemic? Another way to look at it, according to Dr. Grodberg: If your child or teen’s behavior is impairing their ability to function, you might want to enlist a therapist’s help.
This looks different in different kids, depending on their age or and what they’re struggling with. For younger kids, warning signs might be mealtimes or bedtimes that suddenly feel impossible due to anxiety or tantrums. For older kids, maybe getting up and logging on to virtual school or staying focused on chores feels tough. Either way: Take note when your kid struggles more than usual with things they need to be able to do developmentally.
3. Lighthearted moments are few and far between
Part of coping with stress is doing things you like to do. One telltale sign of kids who may have anxiety or depression, Dr. Alex Boeving Allen, Brightline Head of Therapy and VP of Clinical Strategy, says, is losing interest in those things, or just being too upset to do them.
Not all your kids’ normal coping mechanisms are safe or available during the pandemic, so look for a general decrease in lighthearted moments. “If these behaviors are increasing so much that it’s impacting your ability to get through your day as a parent, and your kid’s ability to do fun and meaningful things, then you might need the help of a therapist,” Allen says.
4. The emotional rollercoaster ride is ongoing
There’s a lot of tough stuff happening these days, so you can expect your kid or teen to emote accordingly. But if the emotional rollercoaster is an ongoing ride, it could be time for therapy.
As kids get older, they learn how to rein in their emotions. For kids who are struggling with anxiety or depression, Dr. Grodberg says, emotional regulation may be completely out the window. It’s normal for a younger kid to lose their cool when you say “no,” but an emotionally dysregulated kid would freak out in bigger ways, more often, about smaller things.
In teens, Dr. Boeving Allen says, look for mood swings that feel out of proportion to the situation. “Some of that is baked into adolescence, but if mood going up and down is derailing your teen from meaningfully connecting with the family, it might be time to seek some support.”
“It’s totally normal to feel sad or anxious when hard things are happening. Connecting with a therapist for evidence-based strategies can help you navigate those difficulties as a family.” - Dr. Alex Boeving Allen, PhD
5. You just can’t with the stress
If you suspect your kid’s dealing with mental health issues, therapy is a great first step. Dr. Allen says many children and adolescents can benefit from a sounding board, and the expert input and encouragement could help you, too.
Sure, your stress may not be unique – but that doesn’t disqualify you from needing help.
“It’s totally normal to feel sad or anxious when hard things are happening,” she says. “Connecting with a therapist for evidence-based strategies can help you navigate those difficulties as a family.”