COVID-19 quarantine: Managing pediatric behavioral issues


What can I do about my 13-year-old who is lying around the house all day?

This is a time to pick your battles. If children can keep their regular sleep schedule, get their schoolwork done, and do some physical exercise every day, they are doing great. And if parents are continuously complaining that they are being lazy, it will probably cease to mean much to them. Instead, focus on clear, simple expectations, and parents should live by them, too. If parents can exercise with them, or try a new activity, that is a wonderful way to model self-care and trying new things. It is important to remember that the developmental task for a 13-year-old is to establish new avenues of independence that they will drive down further with each passing year. Give them some leeway to experiment and figure out their own way of handling this challenge, although it is bound to create some tension. Parents should always acknowledge how hard it is to stick with schoolwork without school, exercise without a team, practice music without a band, or do your work without an office!

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek, professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek

What do we do about our 16-year-old who is staying up all night and sleeping until the late afternoon?

Adolescents naturally have their sleep cycle shift, so they are sleepy later and sleep longer. But staying up all night is usually about texting with friends or playing video games. The problem is that their sleep schedule can flip. They will not be able to participate in online class or enjoy exercise in the sun, and they rarely get enough sleep during the daytime, making them more irritable, anxious, inattentive, and tired. This will only make managing their schoolwork harder and increase the chances of conflict at home. So it is important to preserve rules around sleep. You might extend bedtime by an hour or so, but preserve rules and bedtime routines. Sleep is essential to health, well-being, and resilience, and all are critical during times of uncertainty and change.

We think our 17-year-old is using marijuana, and it might be a problem.

When parents think their children may have a problem with drugs, the children almost certainly do, as parents are typically the last to know about the extent of their use. Sheltering in place together may make their drug use much more apparent, and offer an opportunity for parents to respond. Talk with them about it. Let them know what you have noticed. See if they can tell you honestly about their drug use. Kids who are only experimenting socially are unlikely to be using drugs at home under quarantine. If you are truly calm and curious, they are more likely to be honest, and it could be a relief for them to discuss it with you. Find out what they think it helps, and what – if anything – they are worried about. Then share your concerns about marijuana use and the developing brain, and the risk of addiction. If they think it is “medical” use, remind them that anxiety or mood symptoms get better with therapy, whereas drugs (including marijuana) and alcohol actually worsen those problems. It is also a time to establish home rules, explain them, and enforce them. They will have your support while stopping and may learn that they are actually sleeping and feeling better after a few weeks without marijuana.

Parents should not hesitate to reach out to pediatric providers for guidance on local resources for assessment and treatment for substance abuse and addiction. These are medical problems, and they can become serious if untreated.

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