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Experts offer tips for managing and monitoring adolescent mental health

May. 27, 2020, 2:04 PM

By Jessica Pasley

As families are managing the restrictions that the COVID-19 pandemic presents, doctors at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt are urging parents to pay close attention to the behaviors of their children.

Differentiating between what is deemed typical adolescent behavior and the signs of depression can be a fine line, said Heather Kreth, PsyD, licensed psychologist and health service provider.

“I don’t think we can fully grasp what the long-term social and emotional consequences of the pandemic will be for children,” said Kreth. “Being out of routine, cooped up and growing weary of the isolation from regular outlets of friends, sports and outings can really have an impact on children.

“There is a lot of information about how adults can manage and deal with the changes, but it’s important to also be aware of how our children are coping and signs that they may need more help.”

Kreth seeks to help people understand mental health and allay the stigmas around seeking help.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 1 in 5 children and adolescents have a mental health disorder. The mental health of children appears to be suffering as weeks of safer-at-home orders and other social distancing protocols continue to be enforced, said Kreth, who is concerned about the social-emotional needs of children to connect with peers in real time.

“During this unprecedented time, children have been living with long periods of time of forced inactivity and unable to access their normal support systems,” said Kreth. “Households are experiencing understandable stressors and children pick those up.

“It’s OK not to be the perfect parent. It’s important to model that this is hard stuff and show how to manage it in a healthy way.”

Kreth offered the following suggestions to help children cope with uncertainty and change:

  • Encourage children to stay active

“Behavioral activation helps treat depression by getting people engaged in activities and keeping their minds busy,” said Kreth. “Despite an adolescent’s desire to stay in bed all day, it’s not healthy. It is important to get up, take a shower, maybe take a walk or engage in some outside activity.

  • Routines and schedules

“Children crave boundaries, structure and routine,” she said. “Don’t feel the need to schedule every single minute of the day, but providing structure is incredibly important.”

  • Give children space to digest current happenings

“Taking the time to sit down with your children and have a conversation without any preconceived notions can be very helpful,” advised Kreth. “Asking about their feelings, their viewpoints and accepting their answers without trying to fix it can be very valuable. They need to be heard.”

Overall Kreth said that parents and caregivers should trust their gut if they observe a real shift in their child’s behavior that is persistent.

Typical red flags include: a change in sleep patterns, appetite changes, a lack of interest or energy for activities, displaying feelings of worthlessness and sharing harsh judgements of themselves.

At a time when families are spending more time at home, Kreth advises that parents ensure that the home is a safe place by securing all medications, both prescription and over the counter, as well as ensuring that firearms and ammunition are stored separately and locked away.

Kreth advises parents to reach out to their pediatrician if there are concerns.  Additional resources for overall mental health as well as during a pandemic can be found at the following:


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