August 13, 2020
As stay-at-home and social distancing orders continue across the country, we are all dealing with the same underlying feelings of quarantine loneliness. Whether it’s missing family, friends, social activities, or simply not being out in society—feeling isolated can significantly impact mental health.
“It’s a really hard time for our clients,” says Devin Maroney, LMSW at Potomac Program’s Cabin John location in Maryland. “It’s hard for them because they’re even more disconnected than they were before, and I think a lot of kids who might not have been our clients, are going to be in need of mental health treatment now, given the amount of isolation and quarantine loneliness that they’re experiencing.
“During the pandemic many of us are experiencing the isolation and confusion that others have endured silently for a long time – a silver lining may be that we have more empathy for these struggles and more motivation to get people the help they need,” he says.
Recent data by the Kaiser Family Foundation backs this up: “A broad body of research links social isolation and quarantine loneliness to poor mental health; and recent data shows that significantly higher shares of people who were sheltering in place (47%) reported negative mental health effects resulting from worry or stress related to coronavirus than among those not sheltering in place (37%). Negative mental health effects due to social isolation may be particularly pronounced among older adults and households with adolescents, as these groups are already at risk for depression or suicidal ideation.”
For many kids, depression and anxiety are exacerbated when they are disconnected from their peers. They miss out on the opportunity to re-regulate themselves through engaging with others and to practice the skills they need to feel more comfortable in society.
Maroney says there’s been “a real shift” in the severity of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues since COVID hit the U.S. For example, he’s already sent more kids to the hospital in the last few months than he normally would in a year. “It’s a much more intense situation.”
So, what should parents and caregivers do to help?
Learn to Spot Signs of Anxiety and Depression
Because quarantine loneliness exacerbates mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, it’s a great idea for parents and caregivers to know what warning signs to watch for. This can help families address issues early on, rather than waiting for situations to escalate.
Here are a few of the common signs of depression that Maroney recommends keeping an eye on:
- A sudden loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable.
- A loss of pleasure. “Do you notice that your child is unable to smile, laugh, or engage in a positive way, particularly if that was their norm before?” he says.
- Negative thought patterns, such as black and white thinking, hopelessness, or a feeling of being stuck. “When you talk to your kid, if they’re expressing hopelessness (they’re not going to get better, they’re always going to be this way, etc.) that can be a sign of depressive thinking patterns.”
Anxiety can manifest in a number of ways. Take note if your child:
- Is suddenly fearful or avoidant of things that previously weren’t stressful
- Exhibits ritualist or compulsive behaviors that get in the way of their normal life
- Can’t wind down. Maroney says: “If they can’t sit down and relax with you and engage (of course, some of that is just teenagers being teenagers and not wanting to hang out with their parents), it can also indicate that your kid’s internal state is in such a state of chaos or suffering that it’s too painful to be seen right now.”
Take Action at Home
Don’t be discouraged by any of this information, or if you’ve noticed some of these behaviors in your child. There are many ways parents and caregivers can help their kids through these tough times at home. “You don’t have to be a clinician, you don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to know about anxiety or depression to be able to help,” says Maroney. Here are a few of his recommendations:
“Ironically the very thing that can often cure that state of disconnection, suffering, and inner tumult is the thing that they’re avoiding the most: relaxed human connection.”
Spend relaxed, non-judgmental time with your child. This should be “laid back fun” – no schoolwork, no expectations, no goals to achieve. Simply being together not only offers parents an opportunity to see what’s happening with their kids, but also a chance to start healing.
“Pulling out a deck of cards, playing checkers, going for a walk, cooking together – these are really wonderful ways to bond, to build inner resources, and to help your kid navigate a tough time.”
Follow Their Interests
Maroney says that one of the most helpful operating principles he uses, especially when working with teenagers, is to follow their interests. “By the time a kid is a teen, they’ll have picked the few things that matter to them. Finding ways to explore those worlds with them, as an observer, as a companion, and not as an evaluator, can be tremendously beneficial to the teen,” he says.
“This can sometimes mean sitting down and playing a video game, even if you’ve never played one before. Or, go through social media with your kid, or listen to music they listen to […] it can get weird, it can get awkward, they might recoil, but finding gentle and easy ways in to share the experiences that they already find interesting, can be very helpful.”
Organize Socially Distanced Hangouts with Friends
Most teens struggle with logistics: They’re not yet proficient at managing calendars, they can’t operate a car, they might not understand how to negotiate safe interactions with other families. “It might seem like they’re too old to be setting up playdates for them, but [.,.] they may not have wrapped their heads around how to do it, especially when it requires driving or buy-in from other families.
“So, parents can help navigate some of those hurdles and make it a little bit easier for their kids to figure out ways to still get face-to-face time with other teens.”
Give to Yourself to Give to Others
“One of the best devices that we have for detecting our kid’s mental state is our own mental state and inner experience when we are around them,” says Maroney. Human families are complex, and Maroney is quick to say it’s never his goal to shame parents. But, sometimes introspection and observation are helpful.
What is it like for you when your child is suddenly around you? “If you find that, when you are around your child, you are very anxious, it’s a good indicator that there is anxiety in the family system that is affecting both of you,” he says. “If you’re suddenly feeling drained, down, depressed, and hopeless when you’re around your child, that is a good indication there is depression in the family system, and it is affecting everyone.”
The goal here is to tune into and monitor your own internal state. “You can call it mindfulness, self-awareness, tracking your mood,” he says. “In doing this, parents may realize that the family needs help, or, after honest reflection, they might decide that the best thing they can do is get some help for themselves.”
A reminder here: Our society is in a state of overwhelm right now, so there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking help for yourself, or for the family as a whole. Even talking with friends or spending some time nurturing your well-being can be a huge help. “What parents may find is that, by giving themselves what they need, they become the resource that the child needs.”
Alone, but Together
While we’re all dealing with quarantine loneliness during these strange times, there are many ways to support yourself and your family. Stay aware of warning signs, create opportunities for bonding, relaxation, and play with your kids, and don’t be afraid to reach out for the help that they (or you!) need. We might be feeling alone, but we’re all in this, together.