COVID-19 disruptions create mental health challenges. Psychologists are tracking a spike in mental health disorders in children due to the stresses of the Coronavirus environment. Children and adolescents are now experiencing anxiety and depression in record numbers.
One of the primary reasons for these stressors is the continuing fear of the unknown. No one knows how long the pandemic will continue or how things will look when children return to school. Children and parents alike are concerned about family members becoming sick and what steps they should take if they contract the virus.
Pre-COVID-19, children and adolescents were engaged in active social lives. They played sports. They were involved in clubs and activities. They saw their friends in person on a regular basis without social distancing restrictions. All of this has been limited or eliminated because of new precautions. Families are now quite concerned for their children’s mental health as COVID-19 has completely disrupted their everyday lives and normal routines.
Social Isolation Measures Have an Impact on Mental Health
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many social isolation measures designed to keep people physically distanced from others for the foreseeable future. Although these initiatives are necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus, they can cause widespread mental health effects, including depression and loneliness, for children and adolescents.
To promote social distancing and protect children from exposure to the virus, state and local officials made the unprecedented decision to shutter most schools in March 2020. Nearly all of the 55 million students in Kindergarten through 12th grade in the United States have been affected by these closures. School closures substantially disrupted the lives of students and their families and resulted in consequences for the mental health of impacted children and adolescents.
This becomes evident upon reviewing the results of a recent Gallup Panel poll of parents with school-aged children in the United States. Twenty-nine percent (29%) of those parents reported that their child is experiencing emotional or mental harm because of social distancing and school closures. Fourteen percent (14%) of parents indicated their child is on the precipice of a mental health crisis because of this pandemic experience.
How Families Are Coping with Mental Health Amidst Coronavirus
A key challenge that children face is a lack of structure associated with school closures. Children depend upon routine and structure to support their psychological and emotional development. The consistency of schedules, predictable rules and consequences, and set expectations teach children how to behave, develop self-discipline and impulse control, and, most importantly, provide a sense of safety and security.
Behavioral problems can develop in children who experience a lack of routine or structure. In light of widespread school closures due to COVID-19, families are now primarily responsible for support and structure, which is highly dependent on each family’s unique circumstances, including financial resources, emotional stressors, employment, health challenges, and access to support distance learning. Teaching parents the importance of daily structure and consistency in their response to their children’s behaviors is now a priority.
Traditionally, schools served as a de facto mental health system for most children and adolescents. An analysis of the 2012 to 2015 National Survey of Drug Use and Health responses shows that among adolescents who used any mental health services in any given year, 57% received some school-based mental health services, and 35% received their mental health services exclusively from school settings.
But the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with school closures, has proven to be especially disruptive for children and adolescents who have traditionally relied on school for mental health services.
Mental Health Strategies: What Families Can Do for Children
Families can support children and adolescents mentally and emotionally during this challenging time to promote long-term mental health.
Encourage children to discuss their feelings.
Parents can check in with their children about how they are feeling and make it easier to label their “big feelings.” For instance, starting off the conversation with, “It can be really scary not to know what’s going to happen next,” or, “I know you’re angry that you can’t be with your friends,” will get the ball rolling and help them to connect with what they are experiencing.
Explain social distancing.
Children may not fully understand why they aren’t allowed to be with their friends. Families can explain that they are following the social distancing guidelines of a trusted authority, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including that social distancing means staying away from others until the risk of contracting COVID-19 is under control. Parents can engage older children with visuals like the “flatten the curve” charts to help them grasp the significance of social distancing. Finally, explain that it is in the family’s best interest to work together and follow the guidelines of health experts, even though no one knows how long it will take.
Model and engage in supportive activities.
If family members are feeling stressed and anxious. children may reflect those feelings. Families can work together to engage in activities that help manage emotions, including deep breathing, mindfulness, yoga, or meditation that the whole family can do together. Parents can also access free apps with activities geared toward preschoolers or adolescent children.
All humans, especially children, need daily physical activity. Parents can encourage children and the entire family to keep their bodies moving through indoor or outdoor exercise, walking, and playing active games.
Focus on the positive.
Everyone can benefit by celebrating the time they have together to spend as a family. Parents and children alike can make it as fun as possible by working on group projects, organizing the house, designing creative masterpieces, or learning a new hobby or skill.
Seek mental help when needed.
Parents and caretakers should seek professional help if children exhibit emotions or behaviors that are intense, persistent, or don’t respond well to the usual interventions.
If a child exhibits an ongoing pattern of concerning behavior such as nightmares, excessive focus on anxieties, increased aggression, or disruptive or regressive behaviors, it is time to immediately reach out to a healthcare professional.
Health plans may include mental health resources or telemedicine resources to assist adults in identifying and treating emerging issues. Parents and families are the best identifiers and advocates for the health and well-being of a child or adolescent and need to be proactive in seeking assistance.
Parents Model Mental Health for Their Children
Parents have an enormous responsibility during the pandemic to care for their families. But they must also take care of themselves first. Children typically do better when their family models good coping skills and a positive attitude. Throughout these changing times, it is critical that everyone work toward wellness together. Consider, for instance, ensuring that you’re engaging in self care and if you’re working from home, you make the best of your time and space.
While we can’t predict the long-term effects of COVID-19 on children and adolescents, history shows that some children will emerge with increased resilience and coping skills. Others may experience the type of long-term trauma that impairs their development and keeps them overly cautious in the future. As our society reimagines their “new normal, the well-being of children must be a top priority to create a healthy and positive path for the future.
Mental Health Benefits the Entire Family
Mental health is an important social issue for all ages. Employers play an important role, as they provide benefits that create stability and healthcare for their employees and families. Your Woodruff Sawyer benefits consultant can help you determine the right benefits for the changing needs of your workforce.
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The Woodruff Sawyer Employee Benefits Mental Health Toolkit has more resources for managing mental health in your workplace and at home:
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