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Advice from AltaPointe: Observe your children for COVID-related stress

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SYLACAUGA Ala. –  Parents who wonder if their children are struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic — plus the coastal region’s continued recovery from hurricane damage — should be aware of the signs and symptoms of distress, and also should be aware that there are resources to which they can turn for help.

“We are seeing evidence of stress in young people during these times of crisis related to COVID-19,” said Edgar Finn, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at AltaPointe Health. “Perhaps most significant has been the loss of structure provided by the school day, coupled with the rather jarring transition to virtual classes, online learning, limitations on contact with peers and authority figures, and chaos related to extracurricular activities which have been under constant revision, subject to cancellation or rescheduling.”

Students in Alabama were sent home from schools last spring, where they studied and attended classes online until schools reopened in September. In many systems, they and their parents may choose between attending classes at their schools and attending online from home, or a combination of the two.

Dr. Finn said youths with challenging home lives may be especially vulnerable to the changes in schooling. Parents now have added responsibilities related to child care, may have increased stress associated with lost employment and lower income, may have dealt with loss themselves due to the pandemic, and may have their own health issues.

“The loss of structure, increased familial stress and the imposition of a rather chaotic school and social environment can lead to symptoms that may include increased anxiety, moodiness, poor school performance and increases in behavioral difficulties,” Dr. Finn said.

Headquartered in Mobile, AltaPointe provides mental health, substance abuse, intellectual disabilities and primary care services in seven counties, including Mobile, Baldwin, Washington, Clay, Coosa, Randolph and Talladega. AltaPointe Health also offers school-based treatment programs to minimize loss of classroom time.

As their children adjust to new patterns of education — and, on the Gulf Coast, as they contend with the ongoing cleanup and recovery from September’s Hurricane Sally —  parents should monitor their offspring for patterns of increased depression or moodiness, increased anxiety, changes in eating or sleeping behaviors, decreased interest in activities which kids once had considered interesting or fun, or a significant drop in school performance. Most important, Dr. Finn said, parents should watch for thoughts or behaviors suggesting suicidal thinking or self-injurious behavior.

“There are ways to lower stress and anxiety levels inherent in these difficult times,” he said, suggesting that:

  • Recreational activities, even as simple as 20 or 30 minutes of walking, riding a bicycle or playing basketball, can be very helpful.
  • Establishing good sleep hygiene helps children feel better physically and emotionally, and also enhances cognitive performance. I often refer parents to org, a website affiliated with the National Sleep Foundation, which provides excellent tips for helping children and adolescents get a good night’s sleep.  It’s well-established that prior to the current crises, children and adolescents had a high rate of sleep problems. Judging from our clinical experience since the onset of the COVID crisis, sleep problems are even more prevalent now.
  • Avoiding excessive “junk foods” and sodas loaded with sugar and caffeine, while maintaining good, healthy nutrition, can enhance a feeling of well-being.
  • Engaging in activities which had been relaxing pre-pandemic — drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument, etc. — can be helpful.
  • Avoiding a barrage of “bad news” regarding the current pandemic, along with all the other concurrent stressors surrounding our social and political environment, is very important.

Dr. Finn also suggested that parents monitor their children’s screen and internet time.

“These tools have become essential in education and in the workplace, and should be a part of the educational curriculum,” he said. “However, cell phones and social media can also provide opportunities for unsavory activities such as online bullying and inappropriate messaging. Research indicates that the more time adolescents spend on social media websites, the more likely they are to have difficulty with emotional and behavioral symptoms.”

Dr. Finn said the community is fortunate in that parents, children and adolescents have access to services through AltaPointe’s programs. Parents can call its Access to Care line at 251-450-2211 or 888-335-3044.

“In the coming months (or even years), as we deal with this ‘new normal’ of life with COVID-19, I urge families to consider a renewal of their commitment to each other, to connect with each other, and to continue to take care of themselves,” Dr. Finn said. “Home-based activities — cooking together, ‘game nights,’ ‘movie nights’ — are inherently safe and healthy.  Reading to small children, teaching a child how to fish, throwing a baseball outside, making holiday decorations together — any and all activities which the family can do together and do safely should be prioritized.”


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