As COVID-19 continues to alter everyday routines and social dynamics, studies are finding the mental stress, or feelings of isolation, fear, anxiety and depression, brought on by the pandemic are also impacting the mental well-being of children.
The good news is that although we have to wait for a COVID-19 vaccination, we don’t have to wait to address changes in a child’s behaviors or emotions. There are things parents can do – right now – to help.
Take care of you
While parents know their children need extra attention during difficult times, they often forget about themselves.
“Staying healthy, getting enough sleep and finding healthy ways – like exercise – to reduce stress is important for adults, but also for their children to see since kids often reflect what they’re seeing at home,” said Steven Jewell, MD, director of pediatric psychiatry and psychology at Akron Children’s Hospital. “The pandemic has caused some parents to struggle with job loss and food insecurities that are rightfully giant stressors, but being present and nurturing a child need to remain constant now more than ever. Families, as a whole, need to be resilient, but we can’t forget that parents need support and love, too.”
To help lessen anxiety and stress, parents can try things like going for a walk, meditation or taking turns with another parent or adult to watch the kids. Dr. Jewell notes that a child’s pediatrician can put parents in contact with local resources that can help lessen the burden or stress they may be experiencing. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also offers a number of ways to help parents take care of their own emotional health which, in turn, can help kids find comfort and build coping skills, too.
Create and keep routines
Predictability is an important factor in a child’s life, but it has been disrupted at home, school and within social circles since the COVID-19 outbreak. Since people aren’t going to school and work like they used to, the loss of structure can be distressing for kids.
“Kids thrive on routine and structure. It’s the predictability of routine in a child’s day-to-day life that they find comfort in,” said Dr. Jewell. “It’s important families try to maintain daily consistencies like sleep and wake times, scheduled time for homework or play and regular meal times to help kids maintain a rhythm or a degree of structure that creates the predictability or reassurance they need.”
Noticing changes in behavior, isolation or loneliness shouldn’t just be an observation, talk with your child about it.
“Having conversations about why there’s a change in behavior lets your child know you’re paying attention and care,” said Dr. Jewell. “Talking to your child is the best way to understand why changes are occurring rather than leaving it alone. Sometimes it can be a simple fix like letting them know you want them to join the family for dinner each night, whereas other times it’s a clue that something more is going on.”
Signs of mental health challenges are not the same for every child or teen, but often can be seen as changes in the way a child typically learns, behaves or handles their emotions. From irritability and “acting out” behaviors to avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past, be on the look out for some of these common changes.
More ways to help
Making well-being part of regular conversations with your children helps reduce the stigma around mental health and can raise awareness for resources available to them. The CDC also offers an age-group specific resource for parents to learn about a child’s social, emotional and mental health challenges.
If you have concerns about your child’s well-being and need support, talk with your child’s pediatrician about resources and services that may be available.