While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of the world as we know it, there are side effects of the actions we’re taking to prevent even more widespread contagion. Those side effects are coming in the form of mental health concerns for our children, and experts warn we need to look at how COVID-19 affects children’s mental health to avoid another, different epidemic.
While most every state shut schools down back in March and many are talking about some never-before-seen practices come fall when it’s time to go back to school, parents see the effects. Not only on their lifestyles and their bank accounts, but in their kids. As parents are worried about how COVID-19 affects children’s mental health, experts join them and say we need to take a hard look at how to help mitigate those side effects.
As if it’s not hard enough for our children to cope with a world that we ourselves don’t even understand, online learning and the stresses of visual overload can be blamed for the heartache, tantrums, nightmares and regressions many parents are seeing in their kids. Throw in their fear of the unknown and their anxiety as they watch us, their parents, battle with new norms and unknowns too, and it’s a pretty messy but perfect storm of mental health issue.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis is a prominent and respected pediatrician. He is an epidemiologist by training. He directs the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital and is the editor in chief of the JAMA Pediatrics journal. In a newly released article for the journal, Dr. Christakis contends that when we look back at the damage done in these pandemic times, how COVID-19 affects our children’s mental health will be one area we needed to take more into consideration. He argues that while the risks of children spreading the coronavirus need to be evaluated when making the decisions about school, we also need to assess the very real and valid risks to their learning, their social-emotional development and especially to their mental health.
In fact, in an article with NPR, Dr. Christakis says that we may not be taking the full measure of impact of closing schools, both long and short term, into consideration, and to the detriment of our children. Not only will our children’s learning loss be significant, especially on vulnerable low-income populations that don’t have easily accessed distance learning opportunities, but so will their mental and social health development as well.
Sadly, in light of fears about Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), mental health and social-emotional development are sort of pushed to the wayside. That’s disturbing, considering MIS-C is rare, while social-emotional and mental health needs are definite and in abundance. Research already suggests increase in depression and anxiety in children who are under ‘lockdown.’
And while it’s not often talked about, children not in schools means that more children are at risk of child abuse. Often schools and child activities are full of mandatory reporters who bring attention to the possibility of neglect and/or abuse. When children aren’t in schools, they are at risk for elevated anxiety reactions from their parents, and with no one else to help them. Child abuse injuries have already been elevated since precautions against the coronavirus have taken place, and experts wonder if the worst is yet to come.
So, in the meantime…what can we do to help our children? How can we balance how COVID-19 affects children’s mental health with doable action?
First, we want to be sure we’re checking in with them. Talk to them daily about how they’re feeling, what they’d like to do about their feelings, and whether or not they want to talk to someone about their feelings. Telehealth mental health appointments are totally a thing now, and may be a great way for your child to hear from another authority figure that what they’re thinking and feeling is NORMAL in light of an abnormal world.
Talk to them about how good hygiene will help them, but don’t let them obsess over germs or being contaminated. Yes, we take precautions with good hygiene but no, we’re not going to die of the coronavirus if we get outside and dig in the dirt. In fact, encourage them to get as dirty as they can in different environments to help build their immune systems with bacteria. Experts are also concerned about what we may be doing to our immune systems by shielding them from life in the name of shielding from the coronavirus, so let your kids get dirty and be concerned about some germs, not all germs.
Look for signs that they may be having a hard time. They may not tell you they’re feeling anxious, but they may show you with poor appetites, fatigue, tummy aches, headaches and more. When we worry and stress, it takes a physical toll too.
Teach your children about how eating healthy food can be good for them for a multitude of reasons. When they learn they have control in how their body reacts by eating good foods that boost their immune systems, they feel empowered and that makes a big difference in their anxiety.
Mostly, encourage interaction as much as you can. No, we don’t love all the extra screen time necessity, but if that’s how your children can engage with their friends, do so. The less isolated they feel, the more supported they feel. Be the one who encourages them to zoom their friends, ride bikes with their neighbors, and anything else you feel safe and comfortable doing with other people. We were made for human connection, and in a time of social-distancing and isolation, the mental health risks are great. Do what you can safely, and maintain your village, and your child’s village, as best you can.
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