Children’s Mental Health in the Time of Covid-19

Many of us are overwhelmed with the facts of the pandemic we’re living in. Daily case counts. Emails from school about quarantined students. Plans cancelled or postponed (again). It is taking a dreadful toll on our collective mental health. Many feel that the restrictions and closures instituted by policymakers are the cause of this negative effect on our psyches.

“Kids need to play!” “Keep the schools open!” “Don’t shut down the public spaces!”

While the amateur epidemiologists/constitutional scholars venting online may feel that governmental oppression is to blame for our mental stress, it’s bigger than that. And the children are suffering.

A recent study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 14% of children were experiencing worsening mental health during the pandemic. This is related to a number of factors like social isolation, food insecurity, and parental stress from job loss or child care changes. These stressors were consistent across racial and ethnic groups, income, and education levels. No children were untouched at some level by the pandemic’s reach.

So, what is the answer to these mental health issues we are all experiencing?

Schools and primary care providers can address the mental health of children throughout these times of school closures/re-openings/remote learning challenges. Yet, your children’s teachers and counselors are facing their own trials. Many are trying to connect with students virtually, as the staff themselves may be quarantined or worse, sick with coronavirus. Keeping up with lessons and engaging students behind a screen is not what they were trained to do. A quick survey of your child’s teachers will tell you they likely hate this year, but they are doing their best.

As far as home life is concerned, this is where parents can have some control. Encourage a quiet space for school work (either online or homework as usual), even if you have to clear out the corner of a closet for a workspace. If your child has special needs or takes medications for attentional difficulties, stick with their usual regimen if they have to be home. Minimize changes from the school routine. If you’re working at home, take breaks at the same time as your children if possible to keep an eye on their progress.

Talk freely with your family about how the pandemic has changed things and made life more stressful. There is no shame in acknowledging the mental health challenges that exist, and identifying the problems leads to solutions. Ask your child what has been difficult for him or her to manage this year since things are different. If it is the social restrictions from lack of in-person attendance, try to foster relationships with friends for group zoom calls or outdoor play at safe distances.

As parents, it is our job to keep our children safe, and that may look different for each family. We must ensure their mental health as well as our own (the whole oxygen mask for yourself first metaphor works here). Get help if you need it. As a primary care provider, I refer patients who need specialist care, as well as just talk through some of the anxieties that can fill children’s heads at night. Help your kids identify and write down things that increase their stress level. For me, it’s the number of times I hear or read the words “but, due to Covid…” or “in these unprecedented times” that makes my stress hit Defcon 1. Remember: if you can name it, you can tame it. Awareness that our kids may be suffering is the first step.

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