Beating the Only-Child Pandemic Blues

Social distancing is important, but so is mental health.

Photo by the Author

I had this whole awful depressive episode at the beginning of the stay home/ work safe order. I wrote about it here.

I sent my daughter to go stay with her dad because I didn’t want her to see me like that. It‘s surprising to me that I got so depressed because I always considered myself more of an introvert. It’s funny because a lot of my introverted friends said that the stay home/ work safe order made them realize how much more they needed to socialize than they’d previously thought.

At work, I was finding that patients were all struggling more with their mental health. People who only occasionally took fast-acting anxiety meds were suddenly requesting refills of those medications. The drug stores had a lot of psychiatric meds on back order. Also, many of my elderly patients were expressing increased loneliness and feelings of isolation. This issue of decline in overall mental health seemed to be affecting most of the people I’d interact with.

My daughter is a very social person. She was doing well in spite of the circumstances because her mental health is normally pretty good, and she had access to alternative ways to socialize. She saw her classmates on Zoom, and even made new friends online in the gaming community. She FaceTimed with her cousins every day, and they played Roblox together.

Her dad is very protective of her. When I met him, he did not have any children of his own, and informally adopted her. Now, she is his world. He wouldn’t let her leave his apartment, not even to go dump the garbage. He was so afraid that someone might cough on her. Funny side note: He’s a jokester and he had instructed her to yell “Corona!” at anyone who tried to talk to her, should they have to go outside for some reason.

About 60 days into the stay home/work safe period, my daughter Noelle had only left the apartment 3 times, when her dad finally got disposable masks from Amazon for them and they went a few times to go check the mail. I was going over to visit Noelle several days per week wearing an N-95 because I was still having limited interactions with people, in order to try to stay sane. Noelle wanted to stay at her dad’s because his home is larger, and she has her gaming equipment there.

I don’t mind her gaming, but in my house, she is not allowed to have more than 2 hours of screen time.

I would have preferred for her to stay with me, but her dad and I both felt a sense of comfort knowing she was safely tucked away in his midtown home, away from the virus. The virus wasn’t the only thing to worry about, though.

One day I noticed that Noelle was having a pretty bad eczema flare-up. I arranged for her to have a telemedicine appointment with her pediatrician so that we could get her prescription steroid ointment. She had the visit, got her prescription, and we started treating her. Typically we’d have a flare-up cleared up in 3 days with that ointment, but this time the rash was aggressive. We struggled with it for another month or so, getting it to improve, only for it to come right back.

It had occurred to me that Noelle might be stressed out, but I did a mental health check-in with her daily. She didn’t report any sad feelings…until she did.

One day Noelle called me on video chat. She asked me why she felt so sad. She asked me if it was normal to feel like she didn't want to live anymore.

WHOA. That sure came out of nowhere.

Noelle didn’t have a history of depression, but from my experience speaking to patients from all over the city, I learned that this situation we are in — this pandemic — was a special circumstance.

I talked to her dad, and I let him know; Social distancing is important, but so is mental health. I promised to minimize the risk to our beloved daughter as much as possible, and I took her home.

Here are some ideas to avoid the pandemic blues. We did these when Noelle came home. They worked wonders for her.

1. Social Distancing Good Deed: Donate Books to the Little Free Libraries

This idea had a multi-faceted benefit. First, we did a little spring cleaning. We went through Noelle’s whole book collection and took out all of the books for ages 1–7, except the ones that had deep sentimental value. We mapped out a few nearby Little Free Libriaries which had been suggested to us by some local Facebook friends.

We put on our gloves and our masks, and we set out on our little adventure around the city. We put 5 books into each Little Free Library that we visited. My daughter can feel good about both recycling and sharing, and she has about a hundred books left over. We have enough books to make this a weekly activity. Bonus: Noelle found a new age-appropriate book that she liked in one of the Little Free Libraries, so we took it home.

2. Safe Exercising- Social Distance Bike Ride Outside

This activity also serves us in multiple ways. Getting out and getting some exercise boosts natural mood-regulating neurotransmitters in our brains. Sunshine does the same. Hopping on our bikes is a good way to get outside and see real live people, while whizzing by them quickly, thereby reducing the chance that we would inhale any COVID-19 containing droplets of saliva. We can smile and be neighborly while boosting our mood, safely. Bonus: Mom gets to work off some of those extra pandemic pounds.

3. Set A Goal

We won’t always be able to get outside to do things, and spending time with ourselves is part of the stay home/work safe package. You can make that alone time more interesting by setting a goal. Living your life with purpose makes your time seem more meaningful. Screen time is limited in my house, which inevitably means my little girl will have to spend time with herself while I’m working in the dining room.

The least messy quiet activity for that time is reading. To make reading less boring for her, we decided to start a book club. Now, we spend our indoor alone time reading books, so that we can come together on Friday evenings with the other members of our book club via FaceTime on Noelle’s iPad, so we can discuss what we read. So far, the book club consists of a couple of Noelle’s friends and their moms.

4. Pursue Alternate Streams of Income as A Summer Project

The world is changing, and as machines take over more and more jobs, people have to adapt with the times. Starting an income-generating summer project will possibly inspire an entrepreneurial spirit in your child, and teach them creative ways to make money. A lesson for your child to take away from this is that there are more ways to make money than the typical 9–5. Noelle has made herself an Etsy account, and she is selling handmade earrings. She’s already sold a few pairs at $6 a pair. Bonus: Noelle gets some extra cash to buy her digital goods for her video games. Also, you never know where the business might go. This could be the start of her very own brand!

There is still a lot that we don’t know about this virus, so my family is being extra careful and taking it very seriously. However, just as with all things in life, finding a healthy balance is important. We have to be very careful to be cognizant of our children’s individual needs so that we can keep not only their bodies healthy, but also their minds.

Depression and anxiety, for example, are being seen in rising rates in the United States during this uncertain time. We know that some people may be genetically predisposed to these mental health conditions, even if the conditions have not yet developed in them. Gene expression plays a major role in this phenomenon, and certain things can trigger depression-related genes to switch on. Trauma is a major determinant that we know of, and instability/inconsistency in childhood is another.

Being intentional in setting a new routine to combat the effects of having only limited social interaction is a smart way for us to help our children maintain good mental health, while we do our best to get ahead of this situation and put it behind us.

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