Most parents have now learned how to create a sense of normalcy while still keeping their families safe from COVID-19. But there is a lingering aspect of this crisis that you should not ignore — its effect on your family’s mental health.
Now several years into the pandemic, ongoing news reports and shifting impacts of the virus are just a couple of reasons you and your children may be feeling heightened stress, anxiety and fatigue during this time. With easing restrictions and the welcome news of safe and effective vaccines to prevent the virus, new emotions and anxieties about returning to “normal” may be surfacing, too.
What you can do, right now
The good news is that one of the most effective tools for families during the pandemic is also one of the most available.
"The number one, most important thing that parents can do is spend quality time with their children," says Jessica Hawks, PhD, a child and adolsecent psychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado.
Every emotion that you and your kids may be feeling is understandable and valid. What matters most is how you react to and manage these feelings. We spoke with child and adolescent psychologists in Children’s Colorado’s Pediatric Mental Health Institute to offer some tips to help you and your kids cope with pandemic-related stress and anxiety in a healthy way.
It’s OK to not be OK
First of all, you and your kids don’t have to pretend that living through the pandemic has been fine if it hasn’t. This time has been hard on a lot of people and if your child is struggling with that, they’re not alone.
“In general, kids are feeling more stressed and distressed than ever before,” says Jenna Glover, PhD, a child psychologist at Children’s Colorado. “The major activities in their lives have been constantly changing during the pandemic and youth have been faced with prolonged periods of trying to cope with the unknown.”
Additionally, many of the positive things that kids rely on to improve their resilience were limited or taken away. This includes interactions with friends and classmates, developing more in-depth relationships with teachers and adult mentors, and inconsistent access to extracurricular activities.
For some, personal traumatic events such as illness or death in the family, exposure to civil unrest and nearby natural disasters quickly compound. Many families are navigating how to support children after trauma in addition to the ongoing disruption.
All of this together has led to increases in mood and behavior problems in our youth.
Mental health trends in children during the pandemic
Anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide
Dr. Glover says rates of anxiety and depression have more than doubled in youth during the pandemic. This has been accompanied by an increase in suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide). Suicidal ideation is often highest when kids and teens feel a lack of control and a sense of hopelessness about their current situation and the future.
It’s important for parents to remember that depression in young people can often manifest as irritability and anger rather than sadness. If your child is demonstrating a consistently low, sad or irritable mood for more than a week or having major changes to their sleep or eating behaviors, talk to your pediatrician to screen for anxiety and depressive symptoms.
We’re also seeing an increase in disordered eating behaviors during the pandemic. This is likely caused by many factors, including social isolation, trying to gain a sense of control and challenges managing weight due to disruptions in daily routines and activity levels. Parents should be mindful of major changes to their children’s food intake, developing new avoidance of certain types of food, excessive movement or exercise, social withdrawal and unexpected increases or decreases in weight.
Research indicates that young people may experience trauma-related symptoms after being quarantined for long periods of time. Although most youth will return to normal functioning after quarantine and pandemic restrictions, some kids will experience trauma-related symptoms, such as:
- Disruption to sleep
- Intrusive and obsessive thoughts
- Problems concentrating
- Difficulty interacting with others
Looking toward a brighter future
While this has been a challenging time, and may continue to be, there are reasons for optimism. As more children receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the more life will return to what kids are used to. And there are steps parents can take to help improve their child’s mental health.
Prevention and intervention
“Prevention of mental health problems through screening and early intervention is the most important thing we can do for our children,” says Dr. Glover. “Catching symptoms of psychiatric illness early on allows us to provide more short-term treatment that can reduce these symptoms and the risk of a child developing a chronic mental illness.”
Additionally, prevention and early intervention programs have been shown to significantly reduce suicide attempts and deaths by suicide in children and teenagers.
One of the major benefits of the coronavirus pandemic is that telehealth has become readily available for delivering mental health services. Prior to the pandemic, teletherapy was uncommon but now kids and teens across the state can connect to mental health services virtually. This allows better access to care, which is especially important for children living in more rural parts of the state.
How to help children and teens cope during the COVID-19 pandemic
Your kids may still have worries about the coronavirus or feel unsettled by altered routines. Here are ways to make this time more manageable.