Psychiatrist shares advice on understanding kids' mental health during back-to-school season

Posted at 9:02 AM, Jul 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-27 13:40:44-04

MILWAUKEE — As families gear up for back-to-school season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Himanshu Agrawal says the added pressure children might be feeling as they prepare to start a new school year cannot be ignored.

"Its overwhelming. I think the majority of us feel like that," said Myra Delapaz, a mother of three who tells TMJ4 her children are doing their best adjusting to all of the change that COVID-19 has forced upon them. Now, as they prepare to return to a virtual classroom in the fall, she worries about the emotional impacts of too much social distancing.

"Obviously academics are important but emotional and mental health are like my first priority," said Delapaz.

Myra isn't alone. Father of two Isaiah Weatherall also shared some of the same concerns as he tries to keep his 14-year-old and his 3-year-old safe from the spreading virus. Those efforts often cut the kids off from their normal social interactions.

"Me and my wife are constantly looking and trying to figure out what else we can do to kind of like supplement what's being lost," said Weatherall. "It’s something that were thinking about but we don’t have the answers to at all. It's definitely a struggle."

Dr. Agrawal, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and Medical Director of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Clinics at Tosa Health Center, said it's important to take every opportunity to check in with your children verbally and non-verbally.

He says back-to-school season can be a very stressful time for kids, in fact, he said it's often his busiest time of year as a child psychiatrist. This year, he says there needs to be an increased awareness of "red flags" that signal depression and anxiety in children.

"If a child has stopped enjoying things that they usually like doing, or if the child is isolating too much in their room, or is more irritable than usual, or is sleeping too little or too much, or if they’re eating too little or too much, those might be some red flags to look out for," said Dr. Agrawal.

He also said it's important to ask your children directly about their feelings and to keep an ear open for unexplained physical complaints.

It's also important to remember that non-verbal reactions to everything happening in the world can have an impact on your child's mental health as well.

"How we are reacting to distressing news, they’re noticing everything," said Dr. Agrawal.

As social distancing guidelines keep kids from their friends, Dr. Agrawal suggests getting Innovative.

He said it can be a good idea to encourage safe use of social media and to schedule safe but spontaneous play dates for your children.

He said physical isolation and social distancing do not need to equal social isolation.

"It becomes even more important now than ever to mitigate social isolation," said Dr. Agrawal.

Finally, Dr. Agrawal says if you notice "red flags" in your child, you can contact their primary care doctor to get them the help they may need.

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