Promoting Child Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Autumn Kujawa, Ph.D. | Professor at Vanderbilt University
When COVID-19 led to the shutdown of schools, businesses and workplaces across much of the U.S. in March and April 2020, many of us hoped that a few months of extreme social distancing would slow the spread and allow for a gradual return to normal (or at least our “new normal”). Yet, here we are months later and the spread of the virus has only worsened in many regions, and some schools have already made the difficult decision to continue virtual learning into the fall semester. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of all ages across the world is profound. For example, my lab recently completed a study of 450 late adolescents and emerging adults, finding that 90% of participants reported life disruption as a result of the pandemic and 77% reported interpersonal stress, including separations from close family and friends. Further, 37-45% of participants reported clinical levels of anxiety and depression in the midst of the pandemic and closures of schools and workplaces.
Younger children are also experiencing strain from this unprecedented crisis. Many are separated from friends and loved ones. With schools and camps closed, parents are struggling to balance their children’s needs for an enriching environment with the countless demands on their own time. Birthday parties and family vacations have been canceled, and libraries, pools, and playgrounds closed. Further, given the strains on families due to the pandemic and related financial impacts, many children are at high risk for child abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence.
For some children, there may be positives to this time, including lighter expectations for school work, more time with immediate family, and days at home with their favorite toys and electronics. For other children, this is likely to be a very difficult and challenging time. Children respond to stressful events in various ways. Some children may exhibit symptoms of behavioral problems, including tantrums, aggressive behavior, oppositionality, and/or argumentativeness. Other children tend to internalize their feelings and may show signs of depressed or irritable mood, loss of interest or pleasure in activities they usually enjoy, and/or anxiety or worry. Children need the support of parents and other caregivers to get through this challenging time. Some specific suggestions for how caregivers can promote child mental health include:
- Let your child know it’s okay to feel however they are feeling. Give your child the opportunity to talk about their experiences and feelings. Express that you understand these emotions and validate what they are experiencing, both the good and the bad.
- Answer your child’s questions. Take the time to listen to what your child is wondering and do your best to answer their questions in a developmentally-appropriate way. Be as honest and direct as possible, but also be sure to use language and concepts that your child is capable of understanding. We often want to protect children from bad news, but talking through difficult issues, rather than avoiding the topic, is likely to be more helpful for children in the long run.
- Explain what we can do to stay healthy. Rather than just telling kids to wash their hands or wear a mask, explain why we are doing this and let your child play an active role in the process, like choosing a fun mask to wear when out in public.
- Keep your child active. This can be tough with parents trying to balance work and child care demands and many parks and playgrounds closed, but try to make sure your child is engaging in as many active and outdoor activities as possible. One idea for those with limited green space is to reframe a family walk around the neighborhood as a great “adventure”, exploring new routes or choosing something to keep an eye out for (e.g., objects that are blue, birds, things that start with “A”).
- Take care of yourself. Finding ways to manage your stress and anxiety will help set the emotional tone at home and also serve as a coping model for how your child can manage with their own emotions. If possible, try to take time for yourself to do activities you enjoy, like calling a friend, exercising, or other hobbies and activities. It is understandable to be worried and sad right now, but try to also remain hopeful that the situation will improve. If you notice that you are feeling depressed or down most of the day or having thoughts that you would be better off dead, it may be time to talk with a mental health professional. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has excellent resources for finding support, including a 24/7 free and confidential system for accessing supports in times of distress and crisis.
- Know when to get professional help for your child. If your child’s behavior is becoming difficult to manage or you notice that they are sad, irritable, or worried most days, it may be time to look for professional help, including seeing a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. If you are not sure where to start, there are also many useful resources online, including Effective Child Therapy and the Child Mind Institute. You can also reach out to your child’s pediatrician or your health insurance company for referrals. Many providers are offering services online so it may be possible to find treatment while maintaining social distance to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
More than ever, our children need our support, love and care. Being aware of how they are feeling and resources that are available for children and families will help children (and their caregivers) get through this challenging time together.
About the author:
Autumn Kujawa, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University and a licensed clinical psychologist with a focus on the development and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. To learn more about her work, see https://my.vanderbilt.edu/medlab/