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Commentary: COVID-19 and Children’s Mental Health—What Parents Need to Know

5/19/2021 Josephine Elia, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University|Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children;

When it comes to kids and COVID-19, much of the focus has been on the fact that children and adolescents have lower rates of infection than adults. Yet just because children and adolescents are less likely to get sick from COVID-19 doesn’t mean they’re immune to the other challenges brought about by this pandemic. In fact, COVID-19 has significantly worsened the mental health crisis facing children in the United States.. Anxiety, depression, self-injurious behaviors, eating disorders, and substance abuse have all increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic.

The reality is, all families have been affected by COVID-19—some more so than others. Parents have worked heroically to help children navigate these disruptions. However, as our response to the pandemic continues to evolve, the support parents provide will need to evolve with it. Here’s a closer look at how parents can help children cope with the effects of the pandemic and some signs that a child may be facing greater struggles with mental health.

Navigating a Return to More Rigorous Learning

When public health officials first issued stay-at-home orders in response to COVID-19, most people assumed the precautions were temporary. Parents expected a few weeks home from work and a few weeks home from school for their kids. Children are naturally resilient, and most fared relatively well in these early days of the pandemic. Yet as the disruption lingered, children began to face greater challenges. Schools were not prepared for the rapid transition to online learning, and children struggled with far fewer in-person interactions and a loss of routine.

At the same time, many children suffered from a drop in quality of learning. As teachers worked to navigate remote learning, children faced unclear expectations regarding homework and exams, combined with increased distractions at home. Research has shown that active, deliberate learning is needed to truly master new skills and concepts. Unfortunately, this kind of learning is difficult to consistently achieve even in the best classrooms. Despite valiant efforts of parents and teachers, most children will not experience this kind of active learning in remote settings. The result is that while students may have earned passing grades, many may be unprepared academically as well as socially for the next school year.

Signs of Mental Health Challenges

As parents look to the summer and preparing for the coming in-person school year, their focus should be on preparing children to return to normal routines and more rigorous learning. The expectation across society is that everyone will return to normal—that won’t be the experience for many children. Parents should watch for signs of mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, and self-injurious thoughts or behaviors. Pay close attention to changes in sleep and eating habits, as they can be signs of mental health disorders. The difference between a disorder and a normal feeling is the extent to which the feeling becomes so powerful as to overwhelm and interfere with the activities of normal life or cause the child to suffer. As the school year progresses, watch for changes in academic performance or how children approach learning.

It’s also important to remember that COVID-19 can cause other strains on children’s mental health. Children may be worried about contracting the virus themselves, or they may fear for the safety of a parent or another adult. They may be reluctant to engage in activities they perceive as risky. In other cases, children may have lost a loved one to COVID-19 and are grieving. Make sure school staff is aware of any significant family losses or stresses and consider grief counseling or other ongoing support.

Fostering Resilience in Children

While watching for warning signs of mental health disorders, parents and caregivers can also help foster greater resilience against COVID-19 and other challenges in their children. Here are a few tips:

  • Find a mentor – Make sure children feel connected to other adults. Formal youth mentor programs can be tremendously beneficial.
  • Foster friendships – Get to know your child’s friends and help them cultivate these relationships.
  • Experience nature – Spend time in parks or other outdoor areas, or help a child care for a plant to bring some nature inside the home.
  • Get exercise – Physical movement, even in small amounts, improves brain function, which in turn can boost mood, enhance learning and decrease anxiety.
  • Listen to music – Music allows us to get in touch with emotions we may not be able to express verbally.
  • Be active – Sports encourage exercise and socialization.
  • Promote curiosity – Help children understand the world around them and process events by investigating things and recording the activities of the day.
  • Encourage spirituality – Faith and expressing gratitude can help reduce stress.
  • Monitor screen time – Limit internet use and minimize exposure to news media.

Parents Cannot Neglect Their Own Mental Health

Any parent knows how incredibly perceptive children are, and research has shown a strong genetic component to many mental health disorders. One of the best ways parents can help their children in these unprecedented circumstances is by safeguarding their own mental health.

Remember, being a parent is the hardest job in the world. Parents of children struggling with mental health disorders often feel like they’re failing in some way – when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Most are giving everything they have to tackle the constant challenges that come with parenthood. It’s essential to find opportunity in every situation and make each day your masterpiece. Greet each new day with gratitude,  maintain a support network and accept that you are human.

To learn more about mental health disorders in children, visit the Manuals page or the Quick Facts on the topic. Also be sure to bookmark the Manuals COVID-19 resource page.

Test your knowledge

Loss of Smell
Anosmia is the total loss of smell. Most people with anosmia can taste sweet, sour, salty, and bitter substances but cannot distinguish among specific flavors. This is because the sense of smell makes it possible to distinguish among flavors, not taste receptors as many people erroneously believe. Which of the following is NOT a common cause of anosmia?