How can parents support the mental health of their children during the pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has created several stressors for our youths. In addition to possibly getting sick, these stressors may include both social and emotional components.
Most children and adolescents have experienced one or more of the following: interruptions and changes in school routines, limited contact with friends and family members, missed social occasions (birthday parties, graduations, religious gatherings, canceled activities, family financial issues, etc.), COVID illness or death in a family member, changes in daily routines, delayed routine medical care and a lost sense of feeling safe.
For young children, and even for adolescents, their sense of time is impacted by their developmental level. For them, a year is a very long time. There is accumulating evidence that children are experiencing more mental health problems, including loneliness, anger, depression, anxiety and self-destructive behaviors, leading to more emergency room visits and psychiatric hospitalizations.
Parents are powerful role models for their children. The way they are dealing with COVID can be reflected in their children. Maintaining your own well-being must be a priority. It is reasonable to consider limiting news and social media time in your family if you feel that it fuels anxiety.
In general, keep as many family routines in place as possible (bedtimes, mealtimes, family times, study times, walks, etc.), and try to generate new routines to replace activities that have been lost (for example, substitute a family jog for a canceled track meet). As society begins to open, this a good time to start planning outings to have something to look forward to. Recognize that this is a new situation for all of us, so don’t feel overwhelmed if things don’t always go well or go as planned.
It is important to encourage children to talk about their concerns, and to listen to their fears and anxieties. Give honest and accurate information, but don’t go into excessive detail, particularly with young children. It might be helpful to assure them that many adults are working on the problem and finding ways to keep us all safe.
Some children will respond to wearing masks and social distancing recommendations if they feel it is something they can do to help. For older children and adolescents, validate their frustrations over missing so many important life experiences. They may express fears that missing these experiences will affect their education and futures. Try not to be judgmental or reassuring by saying that none of this will be a problem. It is helpful to convey to them that having these emotions is expected and normal, and the next step is working with the family to determine what needs to be done now.
This is a good time to encourage keeping in frequent contact with friends, grandparents and other important people in your child’s life by using technology — phone, text, social media, Skype, FaceTime, Zoom. While perhaps not as good as an in-person visit, a video chat with Grandma can mitigate the separation. For adolescents, friends are important support systems, and parents may need to understand how difficult the separation is for them. They may be spending even more time than usual on social media.
Many children and adolescents have not done as well as usual with virtual schooling. This is especially true for children with ADHD or special needs. This is creating some additional stress for students who feel they are falling behind and will not catch up when they return to in-person school.
Support virtual schooling by setting a realistic home schedule with time for class and study, alternating with rewards, exercise and entertainment. Still, some children will find the return to school problematic due to being behind, plus the feeling that the in-person classroom is now different from what they remember, thanks to social distancing and masks.
Be on the lookout for significant anxiety, depression, self-destructiveness or new behavioral problems that may signal the need for professional evaluation by a mental health professional.
To learn more about child psychiatry at UVa Health, visit childrens.uvahealth.com/services/pediatric-psychiatry.
Dr. Roger Burket is the division head of Child and Family Psychiatry at UVa Health. Pamela Walker Byrnes is a nurse practitioner specializing in child psychiatry at UVa Health.