Mental Health & ADHD Comorbidities

“Having ADHD Is Difficult Enough:” How Youth Mental Health Nosedived In the Pandemic

Most neurodivergent children face lingering mental health challenges related to the pandemic, according to a recent ADDitude survey. Below, readers share how their child experienced lockdown and how they’ve coped with the changes since.

Rear view of young girl looking out the window.
A young girl, with a ponytail, looks out of her bedroom window as the sun is setting. The view through the window is blurry but shows a residential area.

October 10, 2022

Social distancing and remote learning have largely vanished. The same cannot be said of the pandemic’s mental health challenges. In a recent ADDitude survey, 72 percent of caregivers said their child has experienced anxiety, depression, and other mental health effects in the last two to three years. Many attributed this to the pandemic and cited new or aggravated challenges like mood changes, sleep issues, and anger.

Several parents reported an improvement in their child’s symptoms, which seemed to subside with a return to school and social activities. Others said they have learned how to cope with long-term social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Still, many are at a loss with how to help their child acclimate to an almost-post-pandemic world.

Below, ADDitude readers describe the lingering impact of the pandemic on their child’s everyday life. What are some challenges your child has faced over the past few years, and have you found effective interventions? Let us know in the comments section.

“My son’s anxiety has increased exponentially. He always struggled in school, but distance learning for third and fourth grade — two very critical learning years — caused him to fall even further behind, both socially and academically. He’s come so far, but there’s so much ground to make up. He knows he isn’t like other kids and it has made him anxious and depressed.” — An ADDitude reader

“My child avoids all relationships even though he states how alone he feels.” — An ADDitude reader

“My son’s behavior has been difficult, but it worsened during COVID. He became visibly depressed, stopped making an effort in school (even when he knew answers), did not want to maintain any friendships, and became frightened of things that were previously common to him (like his bedroom at night). A decrease in his medications helped, but getting a neuropsychological exam that highlighted his anxiety and resulted in new medication changed the picture entirely.” — An ADDitude reader

[Download: Friendship Guide for Kids with ADHD]

“When COVID hit, we had to stay home for more than a year. Now, [our son] prefers to stay home most of the time.” — An ADDitude reader

“My son’s life changed drastically in 2020 after an already difficult fifth grade year. He has never recovered from loss of math skills, has lost many of his friends, uses food as comfort, and his picking disorder has increased tenfold. This past year was the worst we have ever had, and I hope that some changes made this summer make his eighth grade year better. I hope for happiness, if nothing else.” — An ADDitude reader

“We’ve noticed that over the last two years, our son started and continues to chew and bite on his nails and other non-food items to deal with anxiety. He has also developed a worry about going to the doctor. His concern seems to be around having to get tests, particularly nasal swabs, and shots.” — An ADDitude reader

“A lack of opportunity to socialize and isolation affected [my son’s] well-being during the pandemic. Since returning to class, he’s doing much better and is no longer having these concerns.— An ADDitude reader

[Read: Safeguarding Youth Against Depression in the Pandemic]

“The pandemic and subsequent online learning has dug my child further into depression and anxiety. After two years of trying to succeed at school and failing enormously, she is finally taking a gap year to put her life back together through counseling. She is also being assessed for ADHD, which would explain so many of the symptoms that she has experienced since childhood.” — An ADDitude reader

“My daughter always had ADHD symptoms, but before the pandemic, she did well in school and functioned relatively normally in social settings. Once the pandemic hit, she was isolated and had to learn at home. She experienced severe depression, and her ADHD symptoms became more apparent without the structure of school.— An ADDitude reader

“[My daughter] is combative and easily angered by family. She stopped taking her antidepressants and turned to smoking marijuana to cope with anxiety. Now that she’s 21, she’s buying alcohol.” — An ADDitude reader

“[My daughter] graduated from college in 2020 and moved to a large city with a new job and new responsibilities. The inevitable overwhelm swallowed her and magnified her symptoms to the point of taking action. She just recently got diagnosed with ADHD and has started taking stimulant medication. The good news is that, like so many of us twice exceptional women who have been diagnosed late in life, stimulant medication has made a big difference for her. The challenges remain, but now she has discovered and embraced the tools that help her meet and manage them. I’m grateful she is finally on ‘the journey’ now.” — An ADDitude reader

My child has unofficially dropped out of school due to his inability to leave his bed on most days. He doesn’t eat, doesn’t practice self-care or personal hygiene, and has trouble maintaining and keeping track of material items. As he becomes more antisocial, his OCD, autism, and ADHD symptoms become more detrimental and debilitating.” — An ADDitude reader

“[My son] had sleep issues at the beginning of the pandemic and struggled to adjust to virtual school work and online classes. He did adjust after a few months and is now much better. He still worries and has started biting his nails, but overall, he is exhibiting much more ‘normal’ behavior than he did three years ago.” — An ADDitude reader

“My son has been homeschooled for five years and had a good social network in that community. COVID broke up our groups, some people left, and playmates went online. Friendships faded with struggles to solve online gaming disputes remotely, disagreements over wearing masks, and becoming a teen with big changes during isolation. Now I’m trying to return to work with the higher cost of living and get our son into an Early Intensive Developmental and Behavioral Intervention (EIDBI) program. Due to the shortage of qualified supervising professionals (QSP), he is still isolated and lonely.” — An ADDitude reader

Steps to Support Your Child’s Mental Health

Health experts have sounded the alarm on concerning youth mental health trends of recent years – undoubtedly worsened by the pandemic – and the need for all of society to step up for children and teens. Below are parent-focused strategies to support youth mental health.

1. Be on the lookout for signs of distress in your child.

Contact your child’s pediatrician if the following behaviors persist for more than a week, as they could indicate that your child or teen is struggling and needs help, according to Sharon Saline, Psy.D.

  • Excessive worry, sadness, crying, irritation or withdrawal
  • Inability to enjoy activities they previously liked
  • Poor eating or sleeping habits
  • Avoiding responsibilities they were previously able to meet
  • Greater trouble with focus and concentration than you would expect
  • Unexplained headaches or other physiological complaints
  • Evidence of drug, alcohol or tobacco use
  • Giving away belongings

2. Take care of your own mental health.

Put on your own oxygen mask first. Practicing self-care will help you regulate your own emotions and be present for your child. By prioritizing your mental health – through maintaining routines, taking breaks, getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, etc. –  you are also modeling healthy habits for your child.

3. Validate and acknowledge your child’s feelings.

According to Caroline Buzanko, Ph.D.: “Anxious children need to learn that overcoming anxiety is about doing what we’re afraid of in spite of – not without – fear. That means that even well-meaning reassurances like, ‘It’s not so bad’ and ‘It’s OK, nothing bad is going to happen’ minimize your child’s feelings.” Practice active listening as you validate.

4. Teach your child to externalize anxiety.

Externalizing anxiety will help your child separate themselves from their worries. Anxious teens especially tend to believe that anxiety is an ingrained, unchangeable personality trait. Encourage your child to think of anxiety as an outside force trying to infiltrate their brain.

5. Remain calm to de-escalate anger and meltdowns.

Shouts and arguing will only fuel your child’s anger. Temporarily walk away if you sense your child has lost control. As you walk away, be sure to communicate to your child that you need space to calm down, and that you are giving them a chance to do the same. Clearly indicate that you’ll be back after a certain number of minutes.

Learn more about de-escalating explosive reactions here.

6. Think of meaningful ways your child can connect with peers.

  • Does your child have a hobby? Could they join an online group for teens interested in that activity?
  • What steps, if any, is your child’s school taking to connect students with one another? Ask about extracurriculars and after school programs your child might be able to attend.
  • If your child struggles with social anxiety or making friends, try setting up a couple of “have-tos” during the week (like calling grandma every Friday).

7. Foster resilience

The above strategies all serve to strengthen your child’s resiliency – the ability the cope and bounce back from difficult experiences – as do the following:

  • Give your child responsibilities. Entrusting your child with important tasks (chores count) conveys trust, builds their self-esteem, and boosts their sense of purpose.
  • Help your child focus on what they can control. According to Robert Brooks, Ph.D., resilient people focus their time and energy on what they can impact and influence, while those are not resilient often lead with defeatist attitudes.
  • Teach your child that change and discomfort are part of life, and that it’s vital, nonetheless, to maintain a hopeful outlook despite setbacks. (More resiliency strategies here.)

ADHD and Youth Mental Health: Next Steps

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