Mental Health Awareness: COVID and Its Impact on Children

It’s hard to believe we’ve been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for a little over a year now, and we’re all still grappling with what we need to do. Many school districts are still using virtual learning or hybrid models, extracurricular activities look nothing like they did in the carefree days of 2019, and you and your child might be feeling like you’re stuck in an endless cycle.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is taking a toll on all of us, and children are not immune to the mental health effects. A variety of studies done across the globe in the past year show that a record number of kids are showing symptoms ranging from boredom and restlessness to difficulty concentrating and frequent worrying. Depending on the study, up to 43.7% of kids displayed symptoms of depression and 37.4% showed signs of anxiety.

Sadly, there could also be long-term impacts to a child’s mental health. Isolation and social loneliness have been shown to increase the risk of depression nearly a decade later. We’ll need to carefully monitor the mental health of this generation of children as they grow up, even long after the pandemic is over. Fortunately, there are some steps parents and caregivers can take now to help children weather the storm. Here’s an overview of the primary issues affecting children as a result of the pandemic, and things you can do to mitigate them.

Activities and Friendships

Disruptions in normal routines can be challenging for everyone, but especially for children and adolescents. In non-pandemic times, most children are highly active. They’re learning how to be healthy; how to negotiate relationships with people outside of their parents; and how to engage in formalized activities with rules and guidelines, such as sports or band. Youth sports and similar activities have a number of crucial benefits for both physical and mental health, from lowering stress levels to improving physical fitness. If prolonged breaks occur in sports, athletes should be encouraged to maintain their fitness with regular physical activity. Consistent activity will help children stay in shape for when sports return, and also helps prevent injuries. Exercise can also serve as a coping mechanism during this stressful time.  

COVID-related shutdowns have had a huge impact on these activities, which can leave children feeling isolated from their friends, bored, and disengaged. Let your child know that eventually things will return to normal and they will be able to participate in their favorite activities again. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued guidelines to help minimize the risks of returning to youth sports. Parents should review the school/league COVID-19 policies and discuss them with their children, so they are aware of the expectations. 

Remote Learning

Many schools continue to remain in some form of remote learning. But how kids are doing with it really depends on the child, the family circumstances, and the individual school. Children in high-income school districts with reliable home internet, their own laptops, and a great deal of support from both parents and school administrators are largely doing fine, especially if the child has no special needs.

But some kids are falling behind, especially those with special needs, those living in high-poverty districts, and those who don’t have their own computer or dependable access to the internet. Teachers are doing their best, with many working more hours than ever, but the systemic problems that existed before COVID are now being exacerbated. Learning loss is a real side effect from the pandemic that needs to be addressed–the potential for long term impact is significant. According to the Hechinger Report, even if a child lacks access to books due to school and library closures, parents can make literacy-related activities playful to help young children build their basic reading skills. These activities include singing rhyming songs, slowly sounding out words to help children identify the sounds in a word or challenging children to find everything in a house that starts with a specific sound. 

Seeking Mental Health Treatment

Everyone is stressed as we enter the second year of the pandemic. But if your child is displaying behavior problems or signs of anxiety or depression, it’s important to seek help. Teletherapy is a fast-growing service that will let your child see a qualified mental health provider without leaving home. Ask for a referral from your pediatrician, call mental health offices, or perform a Google search to see which providers in your area are offering virtual appointments. 

Vaccinations

We won’t fully get back to normal until there is widespread vaccination. There are now three vaccines approved for adults in the United States: Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. They may not be available for children until early next year, but kids will be safer thanks to the umbrella of immunity that is created if enough adults (and teens, who may have access later this year) take the vaccines. Depending on a child’s age and specific anxieties, talking about vaccines may help them feel safer and more secure, especially once you are vaccinated yourself.

Resources for Children

The CDC notes that children are, in general, less likely than older teens or adults to suffer from severe COVID-19, though their risk goes up if they have underlying health conditions. But children’s mental health is complex. They may not fully understand what the pandemic is all about, and they may be less able to assess actual risk and behave accordingly than teens and adults. It’s up to you to help them navigate this difficult time. But there is help. The CDC provides some helpful tips for parents, along with a resource kit with more specific suggestions based on your child’s age.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on everyone, and we still have a long way to go. But understanding how your kids are feeling and how to help them can make life a bit easier for you as well as for them. Remember that you’re not alone, the entire world is battling the same problems, and don’t hesitate to reach out for professional assistance if needed.

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