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4 Ways to Help if Your Kid Is Depressed

Routines are important right now, because they help kids feel settled, cared for and in control. “The thing that’s so upsetting about Covid is the uncertainty,” Dr. Koplewicz said, so it can help to weave certainty and predictability into your kids’ lives and give them concrete things to look forward to. Maybe every Thursday becomes movie night, and every Saturday you go on a family hike. Dr. Koplewicz suggested making sure that weekends still feel different from weekdays, too, so that they continue to be something everyone can happily anticipate.

But while maintaining structure is important, experts also recommended easing up on kids during this difficult time, too. “It’s probably a good time to relax some of the rules that you can relax without causing damage,” said Dr. Neal D. Ryan, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh. Maybe ease up on screen time rules a bit (or, uh, a lot), or let kids have dessert with lunch sometimes. The idea is to sprinkle some comforting or joyful moments into each week to keep spirits up. Mindfulness meditation is another thing to consider, Dr. Koplewicz said; some popular mindfulness apps include Headspace for Kids and Stop, Breathe and Think.

And do what you can to keep your kids moving. “Physical activity has a track record as both a preventative and a treatment for depression,” said Dr. Gregory N. Clarke, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who studies the prevention of depression at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research. You don’t have to buy your kid a Peloton; just go out for regular walks or bike rides or do some Cosmic Kids yoga or GoNoodle. (Dr. Clarke noted that exercising outside may have added benefits compared with exercising inside, but that the activity itself is the most important thing.) My kids have roped me into playing freeze tag with them in the afternoons, which they find hilarious, probably because I’m a terrible sprinter.

When my son was moping around the house a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure how to tell the difference between normal sadness and diagnosable depression. Dr. Luby said that when kids are clinically depressed, they lose interest in the things that they usually enjoy. They may no longer like their favorite foods, their favorite TV shows or their favorite games. “The inability to enjoy activities and play is one thing you can say with confidence that’s starkly abnormal for a child,” Dr. Luby said, so it’s “probably the most obvious symptom.” Other signs of depression are when kids begin eating a lot more or less than usual or start sleeping a lot more or less than usual. And of course, kids can seem quite sad or irritable.

My 9-year-old certainly seemed to have the loss-of-interest and sadness symptoms. He no longer wanted to play soccer outside, an activity he usually adores. But the psychologists and psychiatrists I spoke with emphasized another important difference between sadness and depression: Depression persists. “It’s about duration,” Dr. Koplewicz said. “If something lasts more than two weeks, and it’s occurring every day, that’s a red flag.”

  • Updated June 1, 2020

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

If you’re concerned, consider getting professional help. The experts I spoke with said that the incidence of child depression is almost certainly increasing because of the coronavirus, so some kids are going to need extra support. You can start by contacting your pediatrician and asking for referral suggestions. Or reach out to a local mental health clinic, hospital, or academic medical center, which may be able to triage your child online and recommend appropriate help. (The Child Mind Institute, for instance, offers initial 45-minute remote consultations starting at $150.) Thankfully, most mental health therapies can be provided online, so kids can get the help they need from the safety of their home.

As for my 9-year-old: I’m relieved to report that his slump eased up after about a week, and the following week he seemed much better. He even began giving his little sister soccer lessons, which then made her so much happier, too. My son still has his mopey moments, of course. But right now, don’t we all?

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