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Kids are traumatized: Here's how to spot it and help

Another pandemic school year might mean your child is struggling. Experts share what signs to look for.
/ Source: TODAY

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the United States, people have faced so many losses. Children are no exception.

While some kids lost family members or friends, others might be mourning the loss of activities, a normal school year, socialization or other tragedies. Helping children cope with trauma has become more important than ever as the delta variant runs wild in many parts of the country.

“We have been taking our kids' temperatures more in the last year than we have in their whole life. But that’s been their physical temperature,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, told TODAY Parents. “Now we need to take their mental temperature and we need to understand how to check in with them.”

While there has been growing awareness that children are struggling with their mental health, parents can help their children.

“We’ve done a good job in the last year of recognizing that our kids were in a bad spot and it was our responsibility to keep an eye on them and help them,” Gilboa said. “That society-wide vigilance is waning. People aren’t on television every day talking about how hard it is for kids.”

Signs your child may be struggling

Understanding if a child is struggling with their mental health isn’t always easy. Sometimes children complain of physical symptoms, have what seems like a mood swing or sleep a little more or less. Parents who understand their children and foster open dialogue might be able to spot problems earlier.

“It starts with you having a good relational health with your child,” Dr. Candice Jones, an Orlando pediatrician, told TODAY. “If you see that your child has changed behavior or emotions, if they seem like they are not engaged, or enjoying things that they used to enjoy or they’re just out of sorts, take note.”

Signs that a child might be experiencing trauma include:

  • Struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep
  • Nightmares
  • Nausea
  • Butterflies
  • Headaches
  • Acting out
  • Melting down over little things
  • Regressed behaviors, such as thumb sucking or bed wedding
  • Anger
  • Poor grades
  • Anhedonia or loss of interest

“If the crying lasts for longer than 20 minutes or they become aggressive, they may shout, scream, curse … those are indications that something is going on that they’re not handling it well,” Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, Colorado, told TODAY Parents. “(Some children) just can’t handle emotional and society regulation. They can’t come to grips with either transitions or any subtle change.”

Nunez thinks that some might be dreading a return to school or fearing another disruptive year.

“When we may see a lot of those signs come up is during the transition back into school. You’re going to see some of the anxiety, the stress of following a routine again,” she said. “Children have control over their bodily functions so that’s what you’ll see, a big regression. So if you’re noticing that your child is wetting his or her bed, are having more accidents or holding their poop, those are signs.”

Jones said that children often complain of physical ailments instead of describing how they are feeling.

“Certainly things like anxiety and depression can present with physical symptoms, tummy aches, headaches and things of that nature,” Jones said. “Parents who know their children well can pick up on that by noticing the patterns when they occur.”

Still, parents should work with a pediatrician to make sure the upset stomach or headaches aren’t a sign of another condition.

Jones adds that it's important to talk to the pediatrician and make sure they are doing "a good, thorough job of a history and physical around what the symptoms are.”

How to help

Gilboa is working on a course called “Ready for Anything” to help parents boost their children’s mental health. She suggests that parents regularly “take their (children’s) mental temperature” by asking them to rank how they’re feeling. And, parents can do this via text if they feel like their children might respond better to it.

“I say … on a scale of one to 10 with one being ‘everything is awesome’ and 10 being ‘things being more messed up than I can ever imagined,’ how are you today?” Gilboa explained. “(If) that answer is a 9 or a 10—in which case you say, ‘I hear you, how can I help?”

But she cautions parents from dismissing anything up to an eight.

“(If) they give you any answer up to an eight … it’s worth saying, “Thanks for telling me,’” Gilboa said. “Then later you can come back around and say, ‘Hey I’ve been thinking about that and I remember yesterday it was a five. Is there anything you want to talk to me about what’s going on or is there some way I can support you.’"

When children report feeling a nine or a 10 or parents notice signs that their children are struggling, they should consider professional help. They can first talk to a pediatrician.

“Always go into see your child’s doctor and talk about these things,” Jones said. “(The pediatrician) can assess and see if they need to be talking to a counselor, if they need help in areas of depression medication or seeing a psychiatrist.”

Nunez encourages parents to trust their gut when they suspect something is off with their child and seek help.

“Parents intuition is the strongest intuition,” Nunez said. “Please seek a mental health professional to help give your child those skills. What parents don’t realize is they may not have the tools or be equipped — because they have gone through trauma themselves.”