It’s been a rough year for everyone, but especially for kids.
The coronavirus pandemic closed schools, limiting access to trusted teachers and friends, even playgrounds. Financial strain taxed some families as parents lost jobs. Then came George Floyd’s death, followed by both peaceful protests and civil unrest, including burning buildings and tear gas.
“It’s been hard times,” said St. Paul resident Kiarra Story, mom to an 8-year-old daughter, Kiley. “She is feeling everything coming down on her at such a young age.”
Health care providers say they have seen a surge in calls with families seeking help for children and teens showing signs of trauma and anxiety. Parents, reporting children’s fears manifesting in tantrums, mood swings and separation anxiety, are seeking advice on how to talk with their kids about sensitive and often frightening topics, including disease, death and racial injustice.
“We see kids who are regressing including thumb sucking, bed wetting, hiding and fighting more with their siblings,” said Wendy Goodman, executive director of the Ramsey County Children’s Mental Health Collaborative, which has fielded hundreds of calls, e-mails and texts from families reaching out for help. “Everyone is asking: What can we do?”
St. Paul mom Aerine Caerwyn said her son and foster son, both 15, were already anxious about the coronavirus, missing school and friends, when Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck led to protests and then unrest near their home. The boys were so worried they packed bags in case they had to leave in a hurry.
She eventually took them to her parents’ house in rural Georgia to go fishing and unplug a bit from all the news and chaos.
“The feeling is that the world was sort of aggravated and we were really trapped,” said Caerwyn, board chairwoman of the Ramsey County Children’s Mental Health Collaborative.
Tension and stress
Children and teens were already being diagnosed with more mental health conditions than previous generations before the start of 2020, said Abigail Gewirtz, a child psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development and the Department of Family Social Science.
“Since 2010, anxiety, depression and suicide have been going up in kids,” Gewirtz said. “Add a pandemic and racial injustice, and you see heightened tension and stress.”
Another factor fueling this rise in children’s and adolescent mental health issues: The average American child is now getting their first cellphone at age 10. That often means parents have less control over what their children see.
“That is what makes parenting so difficult around these very, very scary sensitive issues,” said Gewirtz, author of the book “When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Worried Parents and Anxious Kids.”
Experts agree there is no single correct formula or course of action for families, who have different values and experiences.
But the biggest mistake parents can make is not engaging their children at all, said Lisa Deputie, a manager at the nonprofit Minnesota Communities Caring for Children/Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota. Deputie is an African-American parent educator who teaches about trauma and adverse childhood experiences.
“We don’t want to act like nothing is happening. We want to have those conversations, but we want to have those conversations in the language they understand,” Deputie said.
St. Paul mom Jacinta Moss said world events combined with personal tragedy — the death of her mother — have sent her and her two kids, Malachi, 9, and A’Zaynia, 6, reeling. Malachi, who has autism with anxiety and depression, has already had negative interactions with the police at school, so hearing about Floyd’s death was traumatizing.
“Our young black men are scared. My son is scared to be outside without my father,” Moss said.
To cope, Moss said she has set up a calm space in her St. Paul home. The area resembling a blanket fort in the corner of the living room gives her son and her daughter a quiet place to draw, relax and play on their tablets.
Moss said she and her children have also leaned heavily on her father, who is a minister. Visiting his St. Louis Park home feels like an escape, and taking part in charity works at his church has helped the family to focus on life-affirming activities.
Moss said she’s also been able to comfort her son by telling him that the wheels of justice are turning, starting with the arrests of the officers involved.
“Justice is all they want,” Moss said.
Comfort in routine
Story said she and her daughter watched the video showing George Floyd’s death together. They live in St. Paul near the Lake Street bridge, just across the river from the Minneapolis neighborhoods most affected by the unrest.
Story, who is black, said she cried. Then the family took part in peaceful protests.
“I have not tried to shelter her,” said Story, noting that her daughter is mixed race. “I want her to see my reality … If she is curious and wants to know more, I keep going.”
At the same time, Story says she is maintaining daily routines, including bedtime, to help her daughter feel secure.
Dr. Andrea Singh, chairwoman of pediatrics at Park Nicollet and co-lead of HealthPartners Children’s Health Initiative, said she encourages families to maintain those habits and incorporate physical activity into those routines to lower stress.
“Get up every morning, brush your teeth and change your clothes even if you are not going anywhere,” Singh said. “Do your normal bedtime routine at a normal time.”
Before a tough conversation, parents need to take some time off to regulate their own emotions and think about the values and messages that they hope to convey. Then, Gewirtz said, they also need to take the time to observe their children’s emotions and acknowledge them.
“Kids see the world through the bubble of the parent,” she said. “When we get caught up in our emotions from these events — our anger, frustration, anxiety and worry — it’s very hard for us to sit and listen to our kids.”
There are no easy, quick answers, Gewirtz said, but parents can leave their children with a message of hope.
“There are always things you can do,” Gewirtz said. “That is such an important message for your kids.”