By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose
For the past 10 months, we have endured an experience that very few of us predicted, much less prepared for. We have experienced the closing of businesses, restaurants, and school buildings. We have been told to stay in our homes and stop spending time with family and friends. We have faced extreme anxiety for the health of ourselves and our loved ones for months at a time.
This type of severe, long-term anxiety has taken a toll on us and our children. I would like to share some recent observations I have seen with children, teens, and their families in the hopes of finding a path through this time period.
Long term-anxiety leads to depression.The human body is not equipped to deal well with long-term anxiety. Thousands of years ago, anxiety would only surface during immediate stressful events, such as when dealing with a predator, or another person that means to do us harm. At other times of the day, our brain wouldn’t be anxious, which allowed us to recover from the anxious event. When we subject ourselves to long-term anxiety, our bodies are dumping low levels of stress hormones for days, weeks, and months at a time. These stress hormones, while helpful in a crisis, take a severe toll on the body over time.
Instead of feeling just anxious, other symptoms begin to appear, especially depression. The human body cannot stay anxious for such a long period of time. In the past month, I have observed a significant shift, especially with teens, into a more depressive state. COVID Fatigue is setting in, and the monotonous days, combined with boring school and social isolation, are leading to more and more teens giving up hope for a better future. Grades are dropping, activity is plummeting, and depression is beginning to set in.
Here are some other symptoms that occur during long-term anxiety:
•Headaches, especially tension headaches
• Irritability and short temper
•Pounding heart when not exercising
• Upset stomach and loss of appetite
•Extreme fatigue and muscle aches
As the vaccine process begins, I was hopeful that kids would begin to have some sparks of hope. I was hoping that they would begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, this hasn’t yet materialized. Since healthy kids are so low on the priority list, I actually think the vaccine roll-out has been even more demoralizing for kids vs. other groups.
What can we do to help decrease these effects? My first suggestion is to continue to try to be as understanding as possible. As we have heard countless times, this is an unprecedented situation, and our kids have no frame of reference on how to handle this. Continue to let them know that your heart goes out to them and that you don’t know how you would handle this if it happened during your childhood. It is important that they don’t think they are messing up all of the time. Take a few minutes every once in a while and let them know you get how hard it must be.
My other suggestion is to begin to help your kids have a positive vision for the future. Begin planning for a family future without COVID. For instance, start having conversations about which friend they will have over first. Start planning what they will do with their cousins once they can visit them again. Begin to imagine a trip to visit grandparents again. Begin to plan a vacation. Although it is still uncertain at what time in the future we will be able to do these things, it is important to help our kids have a hope for a future that looks normal again. I believe this will help them to look for the light at the end of the tunnel.
Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author ofHomework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!andThe Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at email@example.com