Supporting kids’ mental health in the pandemic in Asheville, NC

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Hiya, Asheville. 👋 Brook here. During bedtime recently, my elementary-age daughter lamented how stupid the coronavirus is. She detailed how much she missed her friends + teachers, and doing simple things like going to the playground before she started sobbing. “I just want my old life back,” she said tearfully. Children may seem to be less vulnerable to the physical effects of the coronavirus, but they’re still being profoundly affected by it, particularly in terms of their mental health

Naturally, I turned to y’all — our loyal readers — to help put me in touch with local experts who could help shed some light on what kids’ mental health problems can look like, as well as ways parents + caretakers can best support them. I spoke to three area experts, and here’s what I discovered: 

Bianca Ingrid Gragg, a therapist working in private practice at Semillas Counseling & Consulting, confirms that she’s seen many of her clients (whose ages range from 6-13) express feelings of depression + anxiety since the pandemic began. “All of them report missing their friends, and I have seen a lot of grief around this,” she says. “Many of them are also feeling a loss of agency + control around who they play with and when + how they play. In addition to their own sadness, they pick up on their parents’ stressors.” 

In addition to being a consultant for seven area schools, Kriya Lendzion works as a school counselor for fifth through eighth grades at Evergreen Community Charter School. She says she and her colleagues definitely see the pandemic affecting kids’ mental health. “The pandemic has created a huge void for kids,” she says. “Their whole identities are wrapped up in their friends and their school activities, so without them, they feel very disturbed. Who am I, if I’m not able to go to dance class, or debate club? Take it away, and kids are left with a big void in their identity, so you’re adding stress by a loss of identity and they’re also losing that coping mechanism.”

While author, national SEED Diversity trainer, and trauma-focused counselor Omi Achikeobi-Lewis reports seeing some depression + anxiety among kids, she’s also seen lots of unexpected positives from the pandemic, including the ways kids are using technology to stay connected. “A lot of kids are using games like Mindcraft to stay connected to each other,” she says. “A lot of it is pretty educational, too.” She notes that though its usage needs to be monitored, “the internet is almost like a friend for kids during this time.” Bonus: be sure to check out her first children’s book, which features a Black girl doing meditation + yoga poses. 

How mental health disturbances manifest for kids

While many kids are able to verbalize their feelings, not all are. Mental health disturbances among children can also manifest as trouble sleeping, eating too much or not enough, avoiding things they normally enjoy, withdrawing, and increased outbursts, meltdowns, and crying. Younger children’s behavior may become more regressive, including bedwetting and thumbsucking. They may also be extra clingy. Kriya warns that some kids may develop OCD-like behaviors, especially around things like hand-washing, as a way to exert the sense of control they’ve lost, saying, “When kids feel out of control, they can overcompensate with controlling behaviors.”  

How parents can help

So how can parents best support their children’s mental health during the pandemic? All three therapists note the significance of parents prioritizing their own health. “The pandemic has caused the ground beneath kids to shift,” says Kriya, “and our own modeling + mirroring health self care is crucial to making the ground beneath them feel more solid.” Bianca concurs, saying, “So many parents are feeling like crappy parents, so it’s important to model compassion for ourselves for our kids.” Omi utilizes mindfulness techniques, like meditation + breathwork, to help kids manage their feelings and says they can help parents as well. 

Validate their feelings 

“It’s so important to validate their experiences and feelings,” Bianca says. “Our kids’ feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness are not bad or wrong. It can be really helpful to just validate their feelings, and even share your own feelings with your kids to help normalize their feelings.” Kriya echoes this, saying “You can agree and tell them, ‘This is so disappointing.’ And you can then also remind them: But we are built for resilience. You can use family or cultural examples of people’s strength.” 

Offer them a sense of control

“Anything you can do to help them feel a sense of control is good. Whether it’s getting their input on dinner or what movie to watch, giving kids some input will help give them some choice and help them feel more in control,” Kriya says.

Get moving 

It’s also important to make sure your kids are getting exercise. Being active boosts the immune system and feel-good chemicals like endorphins. “Staying connected with nature and its lifeforce helps us absorb the good energy around us,” Omi says. “Go for a walk. Look at the moon. Be with the trees.” 

Be mindful

“A lot of kids are doing well, but there’s still a lot of anxiety that can be managed through wellness techniques, like breathing. They are a great way to help kids manage their feelings, and kids will talk to their friends about it and teach them, too, so teaching one child can benefit a community of children,” says Omi. Kriya has also created a virtual Zen den for kids + parents.

Check in 

Whether it’s a “worry box” you use to drop written concerns or problems into that you look at during a specified time, or you have a “talk circle” where you discuss your emotions face to face, it’s important to have a dedicated time to see how your child is doing. “Creating space + time to check in with your kids allows children a safe and supported time to examine their feelings,” says Omi.