Q&A: Central Florida doctor discusses children’s mental health amid pandemic

Dr. Monica Barreto works at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children

ORLANDO, Fla. – With the world about to enter its third year in the midst of a global pandemic, mental health is on the minds of many.

News 6 health reporter Kirstin O’Connor spoke with Dr. Monica Barreto, a child psychologist with Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, about children’s mental health.

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KIRSTIN: We want to keep kids healthy, not just physically, but also mentally right now, and that’s been a topic of discussion throughout the entire pandemic. So do you have any words of advice for parents?

BARRETO: So big things that I’ve been recommending for families is trying to keep, if they do need to quarantine or if they are home for several days at a time away from school or work, trying to keep their days as structured as possible. With their school, making sure they find space for themselves, for parents, you know. If they have space in their home where they can do their work quietly.

KIRSTIN: Are there signs that parents should look out for when it comes to social media or screen time that would indicate a deeper issue? That’s not just boredom?

BARRETO: Yes, definitely, we’re seeing an increase in withdrawal. Not so much that they’re in the room, but not engaging as much with siblings or with family members. Heightened irritability, or frustration, we’re seeing a lot more. I’ve been working a lot with increasing anxieties or worries when parents separate. All of those are some signs where this may be becoming something a little bit more serious.

KIRSTIN: When it comes to the recent surge in COVID cases, how do we talk to our kids about that positive test result?

BARRETO: I think it’s a difficult one because it’s kind of, especially as some of these individuals have already had it, or you’re vaccinated, that frustration. Especially with kids and teens and letting them know even if we do have the vaccine and we are sick, that frustration. One, validating it, it’s very frustrating. And we’re still, it is still a way to protect ourselves. But being able to validate if they’re feeling frustrated, if they’re mad, if they’re sad, making sure to sit with it. Lean into that and let them express themselves. You’re really trying to avoid the ‘It’s okay, you’re all right.’ And that’s because what that leads to (is) some invalidation and feelings of parents don’t get it. And that kind of can shut down some kids.

KIRSTIN: What are some things that you think we should tell kids as they’re trying to understand what’s going on? Anything specific for parents of teenagers?

BARRETO: Yes, I would say... validate in whatever they’re feeling. Giving them that space. If they can’t be around friends in large groups, really motivat(e) them to communicate via games, or video games... that is a space where that double-edged sword of social media can be helpful during these times, keeping you connected to each other. Or even if we go old school, give each other a phone call, or even FaceTime, trying to find different ways to continue to have them connected, or if they’re joining groups via Zoom or things like that.

KIRSTIN: Are you able to do virtual visits with kids, even if they are sick with COVID?

BARRETO: Yes, definitely. I’ve also seen some families who we see each other virtually just because of the distance or where they’re coming from, or also are having to or have quarantined. So definitely, I’m still seeing families, it’s never the same, especially with kids compared to in-person sessions, but definitely still being able to see families. And for parents, actually, virtual visits have worked very well.