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Expert Q&A: How to Support Your Child’s Mental Health During the Pandemic

We sat down (virtually) with Dr. Saba Abaci, medical director for Safety Net Behavioral Health Children Services at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield to learn some tips for how to best support a child’s mental health during the pandemic.

What are some signs parents want to look for to indicate their child may be struggling to cope with the pandemic?

(Dr. Abaci) I think it is important to look for any changes in regular daily activities, including some regressive or new behaviors, changes in appetite, motivation, energy, sleep issues, or mood shifts. Stress can cause changes in all these areas. A child’s age also plays an important role in how they can express their feelings. Sometimes engaging in some play time and activities like drawing can be very helpful tools to facilitate communication about thoughts and feelings.

What are some healthy ways for kids to cope with stress?

Depending on your child’s age, you could encourage your child to take breaks from watching, reading or listening to news stories, including those on social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting. Instead, encourage your child to do other activities they enjoy, like spending time outdoors or playing a game. Connecting with friends and family can also help with feelings of stress. You can help your child to brainstorm ways to stay connected safely, such as through phone calls, video chats or mailing cards. Everyone is in an unusual situation right now, so it’s important for all of us to be intentional about caring for our mental health.

How can parents help their child build resilience during the pandemic?

There’s a lot that is outside of our control right now. But some things we can control are taking care of our health, including getting enough sleep, ensuring good nutrition, and being physically active. Keeping a consistent daily routine, when possible, can also help increase that sense of control. Helping children find ways to feel in control can improve resilience, which can improve mental health.

Any tips or approaches for dealing with kids who have mental barriers for doing certain types of schoolwork at home?

It can be frustrating and exhausting dealing with kids who have mental barriers for doing certain types of work. I think reassurance is very important for everyone. Children do well when there is a clear, consistent schedule. Making daily activity schedules ahead of time can be useful. Having some relaxing or fun activity before the child begins their assignments may put them at ease while still having the time set to begin the assignment. This also varies from child-to-child. I find it very helpful to work together on a list of the child’s wishes, goals and how they think they can achieve them.

How can families keep positive during a winter where we’ll likely be at home more than normal?

It will be important to plan ahead this year given our current environment and maintain good routines and social connections, which can be a mood booster during fall/winter months. Regular exercise, sleep, and good nutrition are all important for staying energized. It’s also important to be proactive about finding opportunities to connect with friends and loved ones, even if it’s in a virtual way. Get some natural light daily or keep the lights on during the evenings while engaging in hobbies can help when the nights feel so long.

How can parents find additional support to help their child?

If you have concerns about your child’s mental health, a conversation with your child’s primary care provider is a good place to start. If you need help finding a primary care provider, visit ExcellusBCBS.com/FindaDoctor. Excellus BCBS members also have access to a 24/7 Nurse Call Line, which can provide support and education through specially trained registered nurses.

Any tips for getting an appointment with a mental health specialist?

Your child’s primary care provider can help with making a referral to a mental health specialist, if needed. Most mental health providers now offer telehealth, making it easier for patients to get care from the privacy of home, where they feel comfortable and can call at their convenience. Many Excellus BCBS members are also able to receive mental health services through MDLIVE® with the same provider on an ongoing basis.

For more tips on getting a specialist appointment, watch the video below.

The 24/7 Nurse Call Line is a service provided to Excellus BlueCross BlueShield members to support their relationship with their health care providers. The information provided is intended to help educate members, not to replace the advice of a medical professional. If you are experiencing severe symptoms such as sharp pains, fever, loss of bodily function control, vomiting or any other immediate medical concern, dial 9-1-1 or contact a physician directly.

Erika Gruszewski

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