“Just keep swimming:” Supporting mental health in kids with chronic conditions during COVID-19

April 23, 2020

Photo: Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about new challenges for all families and youth, such as changes in routine, limited contact with friends, or simply being bored from staying home. Coping with COVID-19 restrictions may be especially challenging for families where one or more children have a chronic health condition. Youth with chronic medical conditions are at increased risk for mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression, and these may increase during times of stress.

Dory from Finding Nemo tells us to “just keep swimming” – to keep doing your best and taking care of yourself while dealing with the tough parts of life.

Here are 7 tips to help your child or teen “just keep swimming” and how to support their physical and mental health during COVID-19:

  1. Stay connected and be creative. Most kids and teens are missing their friends right now and this may be particularly tough for youth with chronic conditions who have to be especially vigilant about staying safe and staying home. Make sure your child has opportunities to connect with friends and peers through video chat or other virtual modalities, even doing typical activities through video get-togethers (e.g. movie night, dance class, video games). Help them think about future events they can look forward to doing when it is safe. Stay connected with online groups for families who share your child’s medical condition and check with national or local organizations who may be offering group video chats designed to connect families during this time.
  2. Be safe, be informed and limit the news. With the flood of COVID-19 information coming to us every day, it can quickly become overwhelming and scary. It is important for you and your family to be aware of what you can do to protect yourselves, but not let fear take over your day. If you find your days overrun with COVID-19 news, schedule one to two times per day to discuss COVID-19 updates as a family and try to limit discussions only to these scheduled times. If additional news arises, keep a list and save updates for discussion at one of those scheduled times. During these times, ask your child what questions or concerns they have, hear them out and ask their opinion about what will help them feel better.
  3. Support healthy behaviors. For kids who struggle with depression or anxiety, staying involved in hobbies and healthy activities will be essential during this time. An important way to help your child fight depressive symptoms is to praise and give positive attention when they are doing something helpful, such as playing with a younger sibling or helping with a chore. Do outdoor projects together. Go outside while staying at least 6 feet away from non-family members. Cook a meal together. Walk the dog. Help them do something nice for someone else, like calling a grandparent, writing a letter of support to health care providers or helping people who are sick. It is also a good idea to make sure kids are still getting up in the morning hours, as sleeping throughout the day can disrupt nighttime sleep and mood.
  4. If needed, offer help with medications/treatments. Even children or teens who are used to being more independent may need additional support taking care of themselves during times of stress. If they are struggling with their medications, check in to see what kind of help might work best for them. When they get their medications regularly, they will be able to better manage stress. However, if your teen is used to managing independently and is keeping up with their care, give them space – feel free to offer help, but if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
  5. Be flexible, but keep a daily routine. As schools have moved online, many kids and teens are sleeping in more – great! However, try to keep some things the same every day, which will help kids and teens stay on track with their medical care as well as their mood. Try to make sure they are still getting out of bed in the mornings, limiting daytime naps, eating regular meals, spending some time out of their rooms, getting medical care and homework done earlier in their day, and also having time alone to rest and recharge.
  6. Parents, be kind to yourselves. This is an incredibly stressful time with many new demands on your energy, time, work and finances. Do whatever you can to find a few minutes every day for yourself to rest your mind and body. This helps you stay motivated for your family and sets a good example for your child that self-care is important.
  7. Talk to your child’s doctor. Psychology and other behavioral health supports are available to your child during this time, so ask your child’s pediatrician or health care provider for a referral.

Post by:

Katherine A. Gallagher, PhD

Dr. Gallagher is a pediatric psychologist specializing in working with youth and families affected by chronic medical conditions, particularly type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Some of her clinical interests include helping youth and families build skills for reducing distress and “burnout”...

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