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Stanford Psychologist: COVID-19, Wildfires Taking Toll On Kids' Mental Health

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- Pandemic. Social Distancing. Distance Learning. And now wildfires.

All of these events have caused a lot of stress and anxiety. And if you think it's bad for adults, it can be worse for kids and have longer-lasting effects.

"Many families are having the acute stress of having to evacuate or worried about their lives or worried about their homes so they're having a different level of a trauma experience," said Dr. Barbara Bentley, Pediatric Psychologist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. "It's important to mitigate the acute stress so that it doesn't go on to be a clinical symptom."

Dr. Bentley said children at different developmental levels have different responses to stress.

Preschoolers may get clingier and need more physical comfort. They may also have regressive behaviors like bed-wetting or thumb sucking.

School-aged children may have sleeping and eating problems. High school-aged kids may feel out of control of the situation so a need to do something may arise.

"They've been sheltering in place, they've been missing their friends and they haven't had the normal socialization they're used to," said Bentley. "We know whenever we feel out of control that exacerbates anxiety."

Parents need to have some strategies so they can be confident in how to manage their own stress and their children's.

"Parents always need to talk openly with their children about what's happening," said Bentley. "It's very important to emphasize that they're safe. Safety is one of the things that makes us calm and relax."

Some of Bentley's strategies include:

"It's important to encourage children to express their worries and their fears," said Dr. Bentley. "Some of their worries may not be reality-based so it's important to know what children are really concerned about."

"Then kids know what happens after breakfast, what happens after lunch. That helps establish kind of an automated day which decreases worrying about what happens next," she said.

Mindfulness and Gratitude
According to Dr. Bentley, this helps decrease the physiological symptoms.
"Whenever we take control of our breath, control of our bodies, and really center in, that does do something physiological to reduce the stress response," she said.

Limit Exposure
Communication is important but not too much. Dr. Bentley says images of fire and talk of death on the news can contribute to anxiety and the sense we are out of control.

"Seeing the wildfires, looking at an article, if they're school-aged can retrigger the fear response."

Parents should continue to keep a watchful eye on their kids and be aware that if these strategies don't work, they may need to seek mental help.

For more information:
California Surgeon General
Stanford Children's Health


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