Commentary

Provide support in uncertain times


 

A sense of safety and stability, both emotional and physical, is crucial in promoting the healthy development of youth. Between the global pandemic, need for social distancing, economic downturn, and increased awareness of racial disparities, for many this sense of stability has been rattled.

A mother talking to her daughter Ryan McVay/ThinkStock

School closures have led to a loss of social interaction, challenges to continued academic growth, and, for some students, lack of access to nutrition and increased food insecurity. For students with learning or mental health challenges, closures may have eliminated or significantly reduced desperately needed supports received in school.1 While these trying circumstances have been difficult for many, the transition back to school in the fall also may be challenging because of the uncertainty about what this will look like and possible change in routine. Some students or their families may have anxiety about returning, either because of a history of adverse experiences at school such as bullying, or because of fears about exposure for themselves or others to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

The past several months also brought about greater awareness of systemic racial disparities, whether as reflected in health care, education, or the criminal justice system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Latinx and African-American individuals in the United States have had a threefold greater chance of contracting SARS-CoV-2 and have a twofold greater risk of death, compared with white people in the same communities.2 Other social determinants of health – economic stability, education, social factors such as incarceration and discrimination, and neighborhood factors including access to healthy food – play a role in this vulnerability.

Dr. Maya P. Strange, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Vermont Medical Center and University of Vermont Robert Larner College of Medicine, both in Burlington.

Dr. Maya P. Strange

The pandemic has resulted in a need for social distancing, and as a result, isolation. Children and teens exposed to the news may have anxiety about what they see or hear. Additional pressures in the family can include economic uncertainty, loss of employment for the primary wage earner of the household, or stress related to family members being first responders.

Any one of these factors is a potentially significant stressor, so how do we best support youth to help them survive and hopefully thrive during this time?

  • It is important to establish a sense of routine; this can help create a sense of stability and safety. Recognizing that circumstances are not the same as they were 5 or 6 months ago, encouraging structure should not come at the cost of preserving connection.
  • Note positive behavior and choices made by children and make sure they know it was observed.
  • Many children have experienced increased screen time with the lack of structure of the traditional school day or summer camp and extracurricular activities. Limiting screen time and being mindful of its potential impact on mood is prudent.
  • Self-care for parents and guardians is important. This is clearly a marathon and not a sprint; parents’ caring for themselves will place them in a better position to support their children. This time is stressful for the adults of the household, let alone children who are learning self-regulation skills.
  • Listen to children’s or teens’ concerns and share information in developmentally appropriate ways. It is okay to not have all of the answers.
  • Balance fostering a sense of gratitude with not invalidating a child’s or teen’s experience. Showing empathy during this time is vital. While there may be other soccer seasons, it is normal to experience grief about the loss of experiences during this time.
  • Parents and guardians know their children best, so it is prudent for them to be mindful of concerning changes such as an increase in sadness, anxiety, or irritability that negatively impacts daily functioning such as sleeping, eating, or relationships with family and friends.
  • Promote social interactions with appropriate safeguards in place. Unfortunately, the number of SARS-CoV-2 infections is increasing in multiple states, and there is the potential to return to some of the previous restrictions. However, encouraging social interaction while following local guidelines and with cautions such as limiting the number of people present, meeting outside, or considering interacting with others who are similarly social distancing can help foster social connection and development.
  • Maintain connection digitally when in-person contact is not an option.3 Social groups, places of worship, and other activities have been agile in developing virtual communities. Communication by voice and/or video is thought to be more powerful than by written communication (text, email) alone.4 However, it is important to consider those who may have limited to no access to electronic methods.
  • Encourage open communication with children about diversity and bias, and consider how our interactions with others may affect our children’s perspectives.5
  • As providers, it is crucial that we address structural and institutional systems that negatively impact the health, safety, and access to care including our Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, queer/questioning, intersex, and allied/asexual/aromantic/agender (LGBTQIA) patients.

Dr. Strange is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Vermont Medical Center and University of Vermont Robert Larner College of Medicine, both in Burlington. She works with children and adolescents. Dr. Strange has no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at [email protected].

Online resources for parents and families

Hotlines

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
  • GLBT National Hotline: 888-843-4564
  • The California Peer-Run Warm Line: 1-855-845-7415
  • Trevor Project: 866-488-7386 or text TREVOR to 1-202-304-1200
  • Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

References

1. JAMA Pediatr. 2020 Apr 14. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.1456.

2. CDC: COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.

3. JAMA. 2020 Mar 23. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.4469.

4. JAMA Intern Med. 2020 Apr 10. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.1562.

5. American Psychological Association: Talking with children about discrimination.

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