Kids struggling with pandemic stress? Some coping skills can be taught, says Montreal child psychiatrist

For some kids in Quebec, the government’s decision to give elementary and high-school students a few extra days off around the winter holidays is great news: more freedom to do whatever it is they like to do at home.

But for others, who have more difficulty adapting to change—even small changes—the latest public health measures are just one more source of stress and anxiety.

“Some children present with a very high capacity for resilience,” says Dr. Martin Gignac, chief of psychiatry at the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

Others, however, who are more psychologically vulnerable, have a hard time adjusting and become “overwhelmed by the stress they’re going through.” 

The good news is that resiliency can be taught, practiced and developed over time, says Gignac.

“It’s a skill-building approach, and once you acquire these new skills, emotional regulation skills, these are tools you can use later on in your life, helping you grow with better psychological and mental health,” the child psychiatrist told CTV News.

FOCUS ON WHAT WE CAN CONTROL

Though it’s not easy, it is possible for parents to help their children take steps in the right direction, even in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

For younger children, Gignac recommends maintaining a sense of school-day structure to their plans so the child knows what to expect.

That means sticking to routine wake-up times, scheduling activities when possible—both academic and recreational—and making sure to include some physical activity to allow everyone to blow off steam.

This allows the family to focus on what it can control, instead of what it can’t control: the pandemic.

“The other recommendation,” says Gignac, “is to make sure parents learn to manage their own stress because if they can reassure themselves, they’ll be much better at reassuring the child.”

FOSTER COPING, BUT REACH OUT, TOO

But there is a flip side. While developing coping mechanisms is critically important during this time of instability and fear, Dr. Gignac says it’s important for families to know when it’s time to reach out for professional help.

Mental health concerns right now can be very serious, he said.

During the first wave, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals were surprised that more people weren’t consulting them. They concluded families were afraid to leave their homes even if there were serious concerns, Gignac said.

But those mental health issues just festered, he said.

“We’ve seen since the schools opened in September [that] there is more distress,” Gignac said.

“I don’t think more people are in distress, but for those that are at risk of distress, it’s more intense.”

He says he and his colleagues are seeing people who are more depressed and more anxious than before the pandemic.

“We see more intense suicidal ideation, so we need to find ways to contain those experiences and certainly those symptoms,” he said.

The psychiatry chief applauds the Quebec health department’s recent investment in mental health resources, and he encourages parents who observe signs of distress or a change in behaviour in their teens to call and get help.

He says the hospital’s mental health care teams are in place and ready to respond.

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