COVID stress boosts kids’ anxiety, overeating
February 26, 2021 By RUTGERS UNIVERSITY
Disruptions to daily routines, stress from remote learning, social isolation, and anxiety over illness during COVID-19 can take a toll on children’s mental health and lead to weight gain from overeating.
Here, Mamilda Robinson, a specialty director and clinical instructor of psychiatric-mental health at Rutgers School of Nursing, and Daniela Moscarella, a pediatric clinical instructor at Rutgers School of Nursing, discuss signs that a child may need assistance and what parents can do to get them the clinical help they need:
As a result, a significant number of children are gaining too much weight due to overeating, whether from emotional issues or simply out of boredom. Weight gain, which can have an impact on lifelong health, can also have a serious impact on behavioral health, which in turn becomes a vicious cycle.
Children are routine-oriented and benefit from structured activities. Leaving the house to attend school is an integral part of this necessary routine. School attendance allows for peer-to-peer interaction, which is essential during every developmental stage. Pandemic life is not conducive to normal developmental events and this is having a significant impact. During well-visits, primary care providers often discover children are not getting adequate sleep, are less physically active, and are eating calorie-rich, non-nutritive foods.
Questioning children about what they may be feeling can be difficult. Since some children may not feel comfortable discussing concerns with their parents, using a therapist may be the next step. During the pandemic, many therapists have started providing telemedicine services, which may help to decrease a child’s anxiety about becoming ill when visiting a clinician.
Encourage healthy eating routines. Children who attend virtual learning should have structured mealtimes and should not be allowed to snack all day long. Have healthy options with portion control on hand for snacks.
Make a daily schedule that is visible to the child and consists of activities, meal/snack times and exercise. Do not use food as a reward for good grades or behavior. Avoid mindless eating, such as eating in front of the television or while doing schoolwork. Separate eating times from other activities to decrease the chance of overeating. Steer children to diversional activities, such as including board games or arts and crafts to lessen overeating.
Although it can be difficult to structure exercise during the winter, parents can consider creative ways to encourage movement, like shoveling snow, dancing, or stretching to music.
If a child has gained weight, parents can talk to him or her about how improving their eating habits will lead to better health. A behavioral health provider can assess a child for a binge eating disorder due to anxiety and or depression and provide appropriate treatment.
Older children may lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed, perform poorly in school, have difficulty concentrating and being attentive, and become irritable. Children may report more headaches, stomach aches, and generalized body discomforts. Adolescents typically become more agitated, withdrawn, act out, or turn to alcohol and drugs.
A decline in school grades can be seen across all age groups. Parents should look for a change in patterns of their child’s behavior and daily activities, including sadness, reports of being tired and changes in patterns of sleep, appetite, and interaction with others.
Parents with concerns should make an appointment to see their child’s primary care provider. Children are comfortable in familiar environments, and this may help to facilitate a constructive conversation. Primary care providers can screen for both behavioral and physical health concerns. If significant behavioral health issues are discovered, the child will be referred to a behavioral health provider for further evaluation and treatment.
Comprehensive mental care should include a formal psychiatric evaluation, individual and family psychotherapy and referrals to community resources. However, the scarcity of psychiatric behavioral health providers can be a challenge. In these cases, primary care providers may begin treatment while a relationship with a behavioural health provider is established.
Non-pharmacological interventions are more effective when paired with psychotherapy and are often recommended to learn coping strategies. Valuable resources for parents regarding behavioral health concerns can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. If these interventions do not result in improvement, parents should seek the guidance of their pediatric primary care provider or a behavioural health provider.