The Mental and Emotional Effects of COVID-19 on Children

Benjamin King, MD
August 31, 2020
5 Minutes

At this point, the COVID-19 mental health crisis in the United States is well-established, and ample research indicates as many as 50% of adults are facing clinical levels of depression and anxiety. However, less has been written about the effects of COVID-19 on the mental health of our children. Back-to-school season is now upon us and the consequences of the pandemic, subsequent isolation, and distance learning are hardly understood. We do know, however, after similar major national disasters (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, for example) children have experienced long-term emotional and behavioral changes. For children with existing depression and anxiety, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to amplify and exacerbate these symptoms.

Children manifest distress differently than adults. They may be more likely to show irritability, tearfulness, or become clingier than is typical. The opposite may be true as well: some kids may be avoidant and try to isolate even further than they already are. Be observant, and if you notice a change in your child’s behavior, pay attention even if it doesn’t look like “sadness” or “anxiety” as we typically expect it to appear.

The good news is children are resilient, and most kids will come through this period stronger and better equipped for a future crisis. There’s also a lot we can do as parents to help our children navigate through this storm.

Here are some ways to help children of all ages build resiliency and thrive in crisis:

For You

Perhaps the most important thing you can do as a parent is take care of yourself. This has several important implications. First, it’s no secret we are better able to take care of others if we are taking care of ourselves. If you’re feeling tired and overwhelmed, your kids are likely to recognize that, and they may internalize that stress and anxiety. By taking care of yourself, whether that’s simply focusing on eating well and getting enough sleep or reaching out to a therapist for support, you are showing your children that resilience and coping in a crisis is a skill, and it’s something at which we can all get better. We can also role model healthy ways to manage disappointment. I, myself, am so disappointed schools in my community are not reopening in-person, and while I have shared my feelings honestly at home, I have also tried to explore positive sides of distance learning, including ensuring the safety of my family and our community.

Young Children

For younger children, play is an important way to cope with stress and anxiety. Encourage play, and if you have time, engage in play with your children. Our children benefit when they see us engaging in play with them and truly enjoying ourselves in their company. In addition to unstructured play, use art to help young children express their feelings. Art can provide great insight into what your children are thinking and feeling. Ask them to explain their projects to you, and ask questions to learn more. Another important coping strategy for younger children is finding opportunities to play outside. Obviously this isn’t always possible, but if it’s an option, integrate time outside into daily routines. Stay in close contact with your child’s teachers. They might be willing to share strategies that have worked with other kids.

Adolescents

Strategies for adolescents are similar to strategies we employ as adults; however, adolescents are still learning what works for them. Encourage your teenagers to find things they think might work, and if they don’t have ideas, share things that have worked for you or work for many people. Exercise is always a good option to help improve mood and reduce anxiety. Help teenagers find ways to express themselves creatively. Some teens might want to express themselves through art, for others encourage journaling. Mindfulness training is also a great option, and there are resources online including books, podcasts, and virtual groups to practice and develop these skills. Finally, adolescents rely on their peers for understanding and developing their own identity. Help your teenager find safe and responsible ways to connect with their peers whether it’s through virtual hangouts or going on socially-distanced walks.

For All Children

There are certain strategies that can be helpful regardless of age and developmental stage. At a basic level, most children benefit from a routine. This can include a consistent wake-up time and bedtime each day. On “school” days, create a consistent space for kids to log into virtual classrooms, and differentiate that space from where we play/relax — even for younger children for whom play is a significant component of learning. Consider how you would manage time after school in a more typical environment, and try to recreate that routine. In addition, all children, even older kids, benefit from reminders that we are safe. Just as we may remind ourselves, it is imperative we tell our children that we are doing everything we can to stay safe and healthy. Build empathy by explaining and reinforcing the importance of best practices for protecting our whole community.

When in doubt, seek expert consultation. You can always start with your child’s pediatrician. As the front line in care for our children, pediatricians are actively screening for mental health concerns, and they can help you develop a plan.

Need someone to talk to? Carbon Health now has more virtual mental health sessions and providers available than ever before. Our licensed therapists will not only help you during these challenging times but are here to listen and guide you through things you’re going through in your daily life.

Simply download the Carbon Health app, find a time that works for you and you’re all ready for your session. You are not alone. Carbon Health is here to listen.

Liked what you read? Learn more by downloading the Carbon Health app or visiting carbonhealth.com.

Benjamin King, MD

Dr. Benjamin King, MD, is the Pediatric Medical Director at Carbon Health. He believes clear communication & education are key to fostering happy, healthy kids.


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