Karen Semaan: Parents can help children with pandemic stresses

June 18, 2022. The Daily Reflector. By Karen Semaan.

2021-22 NC Schweitzer Fellow Karen Semaan

It has been well documented that America has a mental health crisis, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a medical student at the Brody School of Medicine at ECU and N.C. Schweitzer Fellow, I have seen the toll that stress can take on physical and mental health and am learning effective ways to address it.

According to the Children’s Hospital Association, there has been a large surge of adults expressing symptoms of anxiety and depression. These new struggles likely stem from forced social isolation, financial instability from lost jobs and the pressure of childcare when the world shut down and schools closed their doors. Children are smart and observant and can pick up on the stress of their parents. My two younger siblings have been struggling with their own anxiety these past two years as they watch and worry while my parents go to work every day during the pandemic.

Another strain on children’s mental health is the shift toward online school. School served as a major source of socialization for many students, leading to possible developmental repercussions in the months and years to come. Online school further worsened the wide educational gap that is secondary to socioeconomic differences. Lack of access to computers, cameras and microphones, reliable internet, or even other school supplies meant that poor students were disproportionately hurt by the shift. Finally, COVID disproportionately affected poor families and resulted in many deaths. This increase in financial strain, food instability and the reality of losing one or more loved ones is classified as Adverse Childhood Experiences.

The gravity of this situation is only highlighted by the fact that there already exists a shortage of mental health providers in America. The CDC estimates one in five children suffer from mental health issues. Children need the most attention and protection, as fortifying their wellness and coping skills will set them up for healthier adult lives.

Parents can take to improve their child’s emotional well-being. Big emotions are hard for children to understand and manage, so parents can try to be more intentional when talking to the child to show them attention, validate their experiences, and help them name and regulate their emotions.

Also, parents can work to increase their empathy and emotional closeness with their child in addition to instilling structure and discipline in their lives. A close relationship with their parents is a protective factor against mental health disorders.

Finally, parents can create space for their children to feel negative emotions like distress and failure. It is instinctual for parents to calm and distract their distressed child. However, allowing them to feel their emotions and regulate on their own with their parents’ support will provide them greater tools for the future.

Karen Semaan is a student in the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University and a 2021-22 NC Schweitzer Fellow. She is from Greensboro.