Adults aren’t the only ones feeling sad and anxious these days. Here’s how to help kids cope.
Just as it did for adults, life changed in unimaginable ways for children and teens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote learning, canceled activities and lockdowns were necessary to slow the spread of the virus. But these restrictions, as well as a heightened sense of fear and uncertainty, have been causing children to feel anxious, depressed and even suicidal over the last year.
Mental health related emergency room visits have risen significantly for people under age 18 during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the same time periods in 2020 and 2019 were compared, visits increased by 24% for kids ages 5-11 and 31% for those ages 12-17. These numbers are an indication of mental health emergencies, but many children’s mental health has suffered to some extent over the past year, even if a trip to the ER wasn’t needed.
- Keeping some type of routine is extremely important for children both younger and older. We all seem to function better when we follow a routine – even if it has to be changed at times. Be flexible.
- Although our children are being exposed to more screen time because of the pandemic – either through virtual school or keeping in touch with their friends socially – remember to limit screen time and encourage spending time outside for activity and sunshine.
- Call your pediatrician if you notice changes in behavior or increased physical complaints. These can be signs of anxiety or depression.
- Try to stay positive and continue to follow recommendations for social distancing so that we can get back to a sense of ”normalcy” sooner. Children will be encouraged by their parents positive attitudes.
There are a number of reasons this pandemic has wreaked havoc on the mental health of kids, teens and young adults (as well as older adults). These include:
- Lack of routine. As much as we may complain about routines, they give people of all ages – and especially kids – a sense of stability and security. Before the pandemic, kids knew what to expect each day, between school, after-school commitments and family activities. Now with so many things canceled and guidelines changing from day to day, it’s hard to follow a regular routine.
- Social isolation. Kids and teens are social creatures. Many schools have relied on remote or hybrid instruction. Even if kids are in school, they’re not able to interact with others as they used to. Add to that the fact that kids and teens haven’t been able to hang out with their friends or be part of teams, clubs or other groups. Often they can’t visit with grandparents and other family members. This lack of social connection can have a major effect on their mental health.
- Fear and worry. Everyone is feeling the strain brought about by this pandemic. People worry about those they love getting sick from the virus. Parents have lost jobs. It may feel like things will never be normal again. There’s a lot to be concerned about these days, and adults aren’t the only ones doing the worrying. Kids are worried, too – and they often overhear adult conversations, which can add to their concerns.
How Parents Can Help
Life is slowly returning to some sense of normalcy as more people get vaccinated against COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean things will immediately – or ever – return to the way they were before the pandemic. And if your child or teen has been struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues during the last year, they won’t just go away either. But here are a few things parents can do to help:
- Stick to routines. Although the only constant seems to be change these days, try to stick to routines as much as possible. If kids are still learning remotely, make sure they’re following a schedule throughout the day. If activities are resuming, create new routines so kids know what to expect. Putting activities or deadlines on a calendar may help.
- Encourage social connection. By now, you’ve likely found new ways for your kids to socialize – whether through virtual parties or socially-distanced outdoor get-togethers. Although these types of social interaction may be getting boring by now, keep them up as much as possible. As restrictions ease, encourage children to get back to social activities they used to enjoy.
- Emphasize the future. This past year has certainly been rough, but things are getting better. Help your child focus on the good times ahead by planning an outing or vacation together. Talk about the activities they can enjoy this summer, as well as new extracurricular activities or sports that might be fun to try.
- Look for signs of trouble. Bedwetting, clinginess and sleep disturbances may mean your preschooler isn’t coping well. Nightmares, poor concentration and withdrawal from friends may indicate problems in elementary-age children, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). The NASP lists sleeping and eating disturbances, conflicts, delinquent behavior and agitation among the signs that teenagers are struggling.
- Seek professional help if needed. If you are concerned about your child’s mental health and things don’t seem to be improving, get in touch with a mental health professional who is experienced in treating children or teens.
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Date Last Reviewed: February 18, 2021
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD