It’s not as bad as you think
The whole world has been through a lot these last couple of years. Those of us who made it through the pandemic now have to look at the world in a whole new way. That includes kids. They spent the better part of a year or more in lockdown away from their teachers and their friends. They are back in school, but instead of transitioning to the way things were pre-pandemic, what we see now is that being in lockdown has negatively affected many children who now show signs of physical and social underdevelopment and a marked increase in levels of stress, anxiety, fighting, and self-harm.
Many kids are anxious about going to school and convinced that they’re going to get sick. The fear is real, but often the illness is not real. It makes sense. For so long, living safely away from others and wearing masks was the norm. Now that kids have emerged from their safety bubbles and are once again face to face with individuals and the masks are gone, there is a deep fear for some that an invisible virus will strike them. I have seen kids who get sick, literally throw up, at the thought of going to school. They spend a lot of time in the nurse’s office away from class. They have a hard time interacting socially with their peers.
Since the pandemic, I have seen kids regress or move backwards in their development because they feel scared, anxious, and unsure of the future. This isn’t uncommon. Many children (and adults!) can go through regressive episodes especially as a result of a stressful situation. For example, some teenagers may feel the need to play the games they played when they were 10 years old, or they may suddenly want to sleep in the same bed with their parents. They’re simply returning to a time in their lives where they felt safe and more in control.
Has this all happened as a result of the pandemic?
According to data from the CDC, mental health emergency visits for kids began to increase during the pandemic. Children’s symptoms continued to rise through 2021, and since the end of the pandemic, there has been an alarming increase in the number of school children who think they’re sick or they are afraid they might get sick. What mental health professionals used to call hypochondria is now broken down into two separate but similar disorders: illness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder.
Children with illness anxiety disorder are obsessed with the idea that they are sick even when they show no symptoms of an illness. Although a doctor may test them for diseases and pronounce them healthy, they continue to believe they are sick or will get sick. Some kids are too scared to even go to the doctor. Their preoccupation with becoming sick can take over their lives and keep them from doing normal activities such as playing with others, participating in extracurricular activities, or even attending school.
Somatic symptom disorder is a mental health disorder that can affect children. Those children excessively worry about physical feelings they may have that are normal such as feeling tired, or having a headache or stomach ache. They may experience normal symptoms, but believe that they instead have a serious illness. For example, a child with somatic symptom disorder may have a headache, but they may fear that they have a brain tumor. Kids with somatic symptom disorder worry so much that it causes them a lot of stress and anxiety that get in the way of normal activities like school.
There is hope.
There are techniques we can use to lessen their anxiety. After ruling out a true sickness, I have seen rapid and long-lasting results using play therapy to change disruptive behavior. Children often use play to express themselves and navigate their worlds. Play therapy utilizes play to help the child more easily express their feelings and emotions.
For example, I like to sit and talk to the kids while we play a game. While we play, I might ask them to think about what their friends would do. One technique I find very helpful is to ask the child what they would like to try that following week to lessen their anxiety. I knew one child liked to sing, so I suggested that she sing to her favorite music in her room for 10 minutes before she went to school. I saw another child who was so nervous about going to school, she threw up. I told her that it was okay to throw up. In fact, I gave her permission to pick the days she wanted to throw up that following week before school. By giving her permission to get sick, she realized on her own that getting sick wasn’t any fun and it wasn’t something she wanted to do. She stopped getting sick on her own.
These behavior changes worked, without medicine, through play therapy and by giving the children permission to change their behavior on their own. They thought about what their friends might do, and they decided what was best for themselves. I also meet with the parents to create strategies they can do with their child at home to continue to lessen their stress levels and enjoy being in school again.
If you see that your child is anxious, nervous, or upset at the thought of going to school or if they show signs of regressive behaviors, please reach out to us. The sooner the better. At Wallace Family Therapy, we are trained to provide the most effective treatment that meets your specific needs and challenges. We’re here to help you.