Coronavirus toll on kids missing friends — why counselors worry about mental health

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Colorful triangle flags cover Donia Salazar’s wall. Each flag represents a day she’s been home with her three kids in isolation since March. 

“Its started out a couple of just lonely flags. Now it is this whole wall draped in these flags that they’ve made together and hang up everyday,” explained Salazar. 

The family has enjoyed hiking, virtual play dates and curbside visits while social distancing.

“They pull up in their car and sometimes they bring you know little surprises for the kids, a snack or a toy. Sometimes we blow bubbles and dance out on the sidewalk,” said Salazar from Houston. “It keeps my kids distanced from whoever we want to visit, but still let’s us see them in person.”

Jason Darling started a cooking show with his 5-year-old daughter Felix. They whip up brownies, cookies and zucchini bread from their kitchen in Austin. 

“We have tons of projects and so much fun,” said Darling. “It’s made her closer to me…I get more of a connection.”

The family has also teamed up with a few friends who are isolating and have had play dates for the kids during this pandemic. 

“We get to hang out with our kids more. We get to spend more time with them and we get to connect with them in a way that I didn’t get to earlier,” explained Darling.

Long term impacts of isolation

A licensed marriage and family therapist at Nurture Family Counseling, Mandi Melendez, says parents can be a great playmate for kids

“It’s a tall order given what families are already doing,” said Melendez who is a mom to a 10 and 11-year-old. “Find five minutes a day where you just put a notice on your phone to engage with them and just play on their terms, without corrections, without rules you know just engaging with them in playing like a friend would play.”

Melendez said she’s hearing from kids who are feeling lonely, anxious and depressed. 

“I think we should be paying attention. We should be listening when our kids say ‘I’m really lonely or I’m so sad or I’m really worried,'” explained Melendez. “We certainly should be listening to them and acknowledging.”

According to a JAMA Pediatrics survey, about 23% of elementary school students in a part of China with the virus outbreak had symptoms of depression; about 19% had anxiety symptoms after more than two months of home confinement.

Melendez explained that keeping connections with kids is crucial even if it’s done virtually.

“Find another child who is isolated and if everyone is being safe as they can… engaging in like a social bubble that can allow your child some contact with a peer,” Melendez said. 

She also said that having your day planned out is helpful for kids to stay on track. She encourages getting out of the house and taking family walks or playing outside once the weather cools down. 

The kids will be alright

Melendez explained that signs to be looking for right now with children include an increase in aggressive behavior, trouble sleeping and a change in dietary habits. 

“We know that children do really well when they have lots of people, particularly adults in their corner, that they feel like there is this rich network of people who care about me and pay attention to me and listen to me,” Melendez said. “For parents, that’s really helpful as well, because they might spot something you don’t. Having them engaged with whoever that is in your family and community, whether that’s coaches or extended family or faith leaders, whoever that is that they’ve had contact with in the past, continuing to maintain those connections could be really important so that we’ve got extra sets of eyes on them.”

Salazar said, while there’s still so much uncertainty, she’s been surprised how her kids have handled it all.

“They’re getting the opportunity to learn new things and do things – explore things that we didn’t have opportunities to do before, so I think that helps,” explained Salazar. 

Darling thinks talking about what’s happening has helped his young family. 

“I think our kids will be fine. I think that if every other generation managed to get through their crisis and come out OK  — I’m pretty sure they’ll come out OK too,” said Darling. “This will just be a thing that they talk about when they’re older — remember the  quarantine — remember the pandemic.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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