The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a year and a half fraught with unpredictability and change. Change and unpredictability can be stressful for anyone, but for children, change and disruption of routine is especially stressful. Schools across the United States were abruptly shut down, moving many children to hybrid or distance learning and moving working parents from office work to working from home, or in many instances, losing their job. Stay at home orders resulted in children becoming socially isolated from friends and others and kept them from participating in normal extracurricular and community activities. As children moved to distance learning, they lost the supports and services provided through school systems supporting their academic, physical, social, and psychological well-being. The impact of these losses have been significantly compounded for children with disabilities, children living in poverty, and living in under-resourced communities.
Living through the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many children being stressed and traumatized. Trauma, when ignored, can lead to serious anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and risky behavior. Children who had a serious mental health problem pre-COVID experienced worsening of their mental health symptoms and for the first time.
As mental health problems have increased as a result of COVID, so has suicidal ideation, attempts, and suicides. Before COVID, suicide was already a serious public health problem in the United States; it is the , the second leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24. With COVID, .
As daily routines were upended, families were forced to figure out new daily routines. Teleworking, distance learning, social isolation, and mask wearing became the new norm. Now, after nearly a year and a half of the new normal, families are navigating the move back into what was once their normal routine. Children have returned to school and are having to readjust to being back in the classroom and all that comes with it. It is not surprising that caregivers have faced extreme stress as they tried to navigate this new normal or that children’s social, emotional, and educational well-being suffered as a result of COVID.
How can parents, teachers, and others support children’s mental well-being?
The ingredients needed for a child to develop good mental health are well recognized. In times of change and uncertainty, these ingredients are even more important. Children need to receive unconditional love as well as encouragement, guidance, and appropriate discipline from their caregivers. They need to live in an environment that is both physically and emotionally safe. Children take their cues from their parents and other adults in their lives such as teachers. It is important to take care of yourself and manage your own stress and anxiety. Open communication and awareness of changes in behavior are two more important key ingredients.
Communicating with children
As in all educational endeavors, caregivers and teachers need to work as a team to best meet the needs of each child. Communication is key to this partnership and sharing of information between caregivers and parents is essential for the child’s well-being.
It is important to give children opportunities to express their thoughts and concerns. In addition to the unique experiences having arisen due to COVID-19, children are hearing news stories about people getting sick and dying, people losing jobs, and people suffering long-term effects related to the pandemic. Listen to children’s concerns and take those concerns seriously. Give children your full, undivided attention so the child feels heard. Open the door for children to ask questions and allow them to tell you what they have heard about COVID on the news or from others. Answer their questions honestly, but in a developmentally appropriate manner. You may not always have an answer to a child’s question. It is alright to say you do not know something. However, it is important to be reassuring about the things you can control and will do to protect them. Never promise something that is out of your control.
Monitor children’s behavior for changes
Monitor children’s behaviors for changes that may indicate omental health problems:
- Sleeping too much or having trouble sleeping
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Decreased interest in things once enjoyed
- Changes in motivation and energy level
- Substance use
- Risk behaviors
- Difficulty with attention and concentration
- No longer caring about grades
- Decrease in self-esteem
- Clinging behavior
We do not yet know the full magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health or what the long-term effects of the pandemic will mean to young people’s mental health. It is imperative children receive the attention, support, reassurance, and, when necessary, mental health treatment.
Feature image by Annie Spratt via Unsplash