It’s no secret that COVID-19 has brought with it many challenges, struggles, and mental health issues. Kids’ worlds have been turned upside down as their routines completely changed and social norms were reinvented.
But what will this mean for kids long-term? How will the events of the pandemic impact and shape them as they continue to grow? How can your ministry support kids as your church reopens? And will kids ever return to “normal”?
We wanted to find out from a mental-health professional, so we reached out to Dr. Krystyne Mendoza, Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in early childhood trauma and professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Here are some of the key mental health challenges kids face and how you can be part of the solution.
Problem #1: Handling a Complex Trauma
According to Dr. Mendoza, “The trauma that children have faced, in many respects, would be classified as complex trauma.” The multiple traumatic events experienced during this pandemic will affect psychological, social, developmental, and educational domains. For kids specifically, this trauma negatively impacts development due to how the brain is creating and consolidating information on each child’s developmental level. Although every child reacts to trauma differently, Dr. Mendoza reports “the effects of the pandemic will be far-reaching as they have impacted so many areas of life.”
How you can be part of the solution:
- Be patient and curious about where children are emotionally, and provide appropriate space to explore their reactions. Dr. Mendoza reminds us that “Children react to trauma in very primal ways, compared to adults, who typically can adjust due to their life experience.” Allow an emotionally safe space for kids to react and process their thoughts.
- Recognize what a challenging time we’ve been through. As Christians, it’s tempting to brush the negative aside and try to move on quickly. However, this is not the healthiest approach for our long-term mental health.
- Expect more social anxiety as children and teens are reintegrated into previous activities after a long period of isolation. After all, this period has been a big chunk of their lives so far!
- Provide time and space for kids to express their thoughts and feelings, directly or indirectly. Dr. Mendoza advises, “We don’t want to just talk to them about it, but to talk with them about it.”
Problem #2: Spotting a Mental-Health Crisis
Kids are experiencing high rates of mental-health crises and mental-health emergency room visits. According to Dr. Mendoza, “It is my professional opinion that the pandemic will have life-changing alterations, some being positive, some being negative for both children and adults. This will be a time we all remember.” This means that some of the kids in your ministry will return and have a hidden (or not-so-hidden) struggle with mental health issues.
How you can be part of the solution:
- Drop the stigma. Dr. Mendoza laments, “Unfortunately, we still face a lot of stigmas as it relates to seeking assistance for mental health.” Make your church a place where we can all work together to support children in getting the help they need.
- Pay special attention to differences in your children. If you notice differences in social behavior, withdrawing, concerning thoughts/statements, academic struggles, emotional regulation concerns, and so on, seek mental health services with a trained professional who specializes in working with children.
- Take the tough stuff seriously. Dr. Mendoza notes, “Most people, who are not trained mental health professionals, are not adequately equipped to deal with self-harm, suicidality, or feelings of hopelessness. In these situations, children ministers must be proactive in having a conversation with parents/caregivers and ensuring that children have access to the mental health support they need.” Any concerns with active self-harm and/or suicidal ideation should be addressed immediately by emergency professionals (going to the local emergency room). Additionally, it’s important to remember that “parents benefit from leaders who sit down and talk to parents about what they are seeing, creating a partnership to help the child.”
- Deal with urgent issues right away. When parents or caregivers are not supportive of the child getting mental health support, this could be deemed emotional abuse and may give rise to the need to report to state child protective agencies. Thus, according to Dr. Mendoza, “it is vital to give a child space to talk about things and have clear boundaries about what the next steps look like.”
- Seek out additional training to learn the skills to help children and teens regulate and process through emotions, rather than trying to “fix” them. In this process, we slow down, we are curious, and we provide space to let the child be open and authentic in regard to what they’re experiencing. For example, think of Mr. Rogers. Dr. Mendoza recommends training like ASIST from LivingWorks that serves as a gatekeeper training designed for non-mental health professionals to intervene with a person at risk.
Problem #3: Making the Most of a Limited Role
You may see kids only once a week (at best)…but they need your support. How can you structure your ministry to best help children?
How you can be part of the solution:
- Structured activities, especially ones that highlight some of what we have all been going through, are invaluable.
- Be present and available. Make sure you have time in which children can approach you.
- Don’t be afraid to name what you see. For example, you might say, “Hey, [child’s name], I noticed you seem a little down/hurt/worried. Is there anything I can do to support you?” This is validating on so many levels for children. As Dr. Mendoza advises, “We all want to be seen, heard, and known. We have to be intentional about doing that for our kids.”
- Reframe hardship with positivity and gratitude. Acknowledge that the pandemic was complex, challenging, scary, and overwhelming, but also that we all went through this together, and that takes strength, resilience, and bravery. Create a game of naming what you’re thankful for: Gratitude Pictionary, Gratitude Bingo, or Gratitude scavenger hunts! Get creative and have fun giving God glory!
Looking for materials that will help kids process their emotions from the pandemic and keeps safety precautions in mind? Check out Empowering Courageous Kids: Back to Church Edition. You’ll get an 8-week Sunday school series that helps kids overcome the fear and anxiety associated with an uncertain world while discovering how God’s power can give them courage. Click here for more information.
Want to be part of the solution? Colorado Christian University can equip you to become a well-rounded, compassionate, and effective counselor with a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and emphasis options in Marriage and Family Therapy or Substance Use Disorders. Group U students can even qualify for up to 20% off tuition with CCU Online.
Also check out the Group U online course: Helping Hurting Kids or the mini-course titled How to Talk to Kids and Their Parents About Tough Issues
About Dr. Mendoza
Dr. Krystyne Mendoza is a licensed counselor in Texas and Colorado. She began her clinical practice in Texas, working with children, later specializing in early childhood trauma. Dr. Mendoza, now located in Colorado, continues to serve children and families through her private practice. She is currently working toward licensure as a Registered Play Therapist, and is a child abuse awareness advocate. Dr. Mendoza is a full-time Associate Professor at Colorado Christian University for the MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program.
Dr. Mendoza holds memberships in the American Counseling Association, Colorado Counseling Association, Texas Counseling Association, Association for Play Therapy, and Colorado Association for Play Therapy.