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Coronavirus (COVID-19): How to Support Your Child’s Mental Health

It’s normal for children to feel anxious, sad, or angry sometimes. But if those feelings happen a lot or get in the way of your child enjoying life, it could be time to get more support.

As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, it continues to bring uncertainty for adults and kids. Many children have adjusted to the changes. But some have not. Staying home when sick or after being near someone who has the virus, lost time with friends, missed activities or milestones, and for some, loss of a loved one mean that many kids and teens are facing mental health challenges.

What Signs of Stress Should We Watch for?

For young kids, this pandemic has taken place over a large portion of their lives. So how might they show signs of stress? Signs to watch for include:

  • irritability: crying more or being hard to calm down
  • acting out: having more tantrums, hitting
  • changes in sleep: trouble falling asleep or waking during the night
  • tummy issues: belly pain, nausea, diarrhea, or constipation
  • having accidents: toileting accidents after being fully potty trained
  • seeming scared: not wanting to be alone, trouble separating from you

In older kids and teens, watch for:

  • sleep changes, like sleeping during the day and staying up at night, taking long naps
  • eating much more or much less than usual
  • personal care changes, like not showering or changing clothes
  • problems at school like poor grades or behavior problems
  • defiance and other behavior problems beyond teen moodiness
  • seeming isolated and not connecting with friends or peers
  • quick mood changes, like from happy to angry or sudden moments of irritability
  • no longer enjoying things they were interested in, like hobbies and sports 
  • using drugs or alcohol
  • talking about death or suicide

If a child or teen talks about suicide, take it seriously. If you see signs of possible self-harm, get help right away. Make sure they don’t have access to medicines or weapons, and call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “TALK” to 7-4-1-7-4-1. You can also take your child to a hospital emergency room or call 911.

How Do Health Care Providers Help Kids Who Are Struggling?

If you think your child needs help coping with their stress, talk to your pediatrician. They can help you understand if your child needs support from a licensed mental health professional. A therapist, counselor, or psychologist can help if emotions are getting in the way of living a full life. There are many ways they can help kids manage stress, depression, and anxiety so they can have as much fun as possible and get back to the things they want to do.

Here’s what your child can expect during a visit with a mental health professional:

  • Some kids might worry about seeing a new doctor. Reassure them it will be a talking type of doctor, and that no shots or tests will happen.
  • At first your child and the therapist will get to know each other. The therapist will ask questions and listen.
  • They will talk about what has been going on and what is stressful for your child.
  • Teens can usually have time on their own without a parent there so they can talk about their feelings and not worry about how their parent will respond.
  • Sometimes a mental health provider will also talk with a parent alone to get their perspective.
  • Usually, for kids under 12, a caregiver stays in the room the whole time.

How Can Parents and Caregivers Help?

  • Check in with your kids often. This can be a quick chat just to ask how they’re doing and let them know you’re there for them. 
  • Be curious about what they’re dealing with. Ask what disappointments or fears or frustrations they have.
  • Be a good listener. Accept their disappointments and losses as being real. Let them know it’s OK to feel mad or frustrated. Don’t judge or try to talk them out of their feelings.
  • Be available. Give kids chances to come to you. Kids sometimes think adults are too busy and they don’t want to be a burden. Make yourself available.
  • Talk to them often about social media and how much is the right amount. Some activity, like video chats with friends, is helpful and creates ways to connect with others. But too much attention on social media can make things worse. Help your kids find a balance.
  • Talk positively but honestly about the future. Let kids know things will get better. Talk about things they can look forward to.
  • Create memorable experiences. Have a family movie night outside or do a scavenger hunt around the house. Finding new ways to have fun together can help build your bond and help everyone let go of some of their stress.
  • Help them re-engage. Support your kids in safely returning to social activities like sports, clubs, or other programs.
  • Have quiet time. Listen to music or read books together. Learn yoga or do some stretching together.

Also be sure to take care of yourself. Parents are role models. Parenting is easier when we’re not cranky and burned out. Get rest and physical activity. Eat well. Take care of yourself so you can be your best self for your kids. During this stressful time:

  • Talk about your own feelings and disappointments. Kids will see it’s OK to have uncomfortable feelings and that it helps to share them.
  • If you go to therapy or talk to your health care provider about stress, consider sharing that with your kids and explain how it helps you.

It’s natural for parents and kids to want to get back to their routines after such a long disruption. With patience and support, kids have a better chance of understanding what’s going on during the pandemic and dealing with it as best they can. They may even learn coping skills they can use throughout their lives. Through family, social, and professional supports, kids and teens can remain resilient through the challenges of COVID-19.