The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has created an unparalleled global health crisis, disrupting nearly every facet of daily life, and healthcare experts are concerned that its toll on the mental health and well-being of people across the world—including children—could lead to a second pandemic: mental illness.
While the full toll of COVID-19 on children’s mental health won’t be known for years, children could experience a substantial and long-term impact, healthcare experts warn.
Children thrive when they feel safe and protected, when they have stable, nurturing family and community connections, and when their basic needs are met. Depending on the child, some or all of this is in jeopardy with the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNC Health child and adolescent psychiatrist Amy Ursano, MD, offers some approaches to try to help protect your child’s mental health.
Have reassuring but honest, age-appropriate discussions.
A key to healthy development is that children feel safe and secure, Dr. Ursano says. Parents “need to be able to communicate to their children that they will be kept safe and secure, even now.”
It’s also important to be honest, so don’t dismiss the risks of COVID-19 or other stressors during this time. You’ll also want to explain how you’re taking steps—such as wearing masks and physically distancing—to stay healthy.
Remember to keep conversations developmentally appropriate.
“For young children and preschoolers, use basic words and shorter sentences, not a lot of detail. Talk about how it’s important to wash hands and how many times they should sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to have clean hands,” Dr. Ursano says.
Keep the conversations playful and creative, but help young children understand that this is how we take care of ourselves to stay safe. You can even encourage them to use drawings, Legos or dolls to communicate how they feel if they aren’t verbal, Dr. Ursano says.
For older children, you can share more facts and information, but be conscious of what each child can handle. Give them the opportunity to ask questions and share their worries.
“You may not have all the answers, but they need to recognize that it’s OK to be worried about stuff,” Dr. Ursano says. “And don’t assume you know what those worries are. Create the space for them to come to you with their questions and concerns.”
Be present for your children.
Even if you don’t have all the answers, just being available for your children can be comforting.
It’s important to offer children your undivided attention.
“Be available and be present,” Dr. Ursano says. “That can be hard for parents right now, even if they are there physically, because they’re stressed, too. But try to find and create time to really be with them.”
Limit news consumption.
You need to be informed about how to protect yourself and your family, so check in with a trusted news source once a day to learn the latest, but try not to spend hours watching and reading the news.
“Make sure to turn it off and find something else to do as a family,” Dr. Ursano says. “Or look for happy stories to share with your kids.”
Be aware that bedtime can be harder right now.
Going to sleep can be difficult for children (and adults) because our brains can start spinning the wheel of worries during this quiet time, Dr. Ursano says.
Be sure to stick to calming routines such as bedtime stories or hanging out on the couch with your teen. You can try comforting gestures such as a glass of warm milk or a bedtime blanket warm from the dryer.
Recognize that your children may act out a little before bed.
“Don’t be surprised if they regress, and your 5-year-old acts 3 or your 8-year-old starts acting 5,” Dr. Ursano says. “Know it is all part of this.”
Bedtime is also a good time to invite your children to share their feelings and worries with you. Maybe let them know that you have trouble falling asleep right now, too, and try to come up with solutions together.
“What you’re communicating to them is, ‘I’m with you physically, I’m with you emotionally, (and) I’m going to figure out how to help you. But I’m also going to help you figure out how to help yourself,’” Dr. Ursano says. “Those are really good things for teaching resilience and for growth.”
Look for the helpers.
As Mister Rogers famously said, “Look for the helpers.” Find examples of how people in your community are helping each other, and share them with your child.
“They need to know there is leadership and all types of people out there helping, like nurses, firemen and the garbage collectors who come faithfully every week to help us,” Dr. Ursano says.
When you see people applauding first responders or singing from their balconies on the news, share it with your child.
“Those sorts of exposures can be really nice for kids and adults,” Dr. Ursano says.
Even better, you can talk to your child about how you can be helpers yourselves, as a team. Even very young children can do their part by coloring a picture for an older adult neighbor or calling “Thank you!” out the window to the mail carrier.
Normalize their worry.
Make sure your child knows that it’s normal to experience negative emotions throughout life, and especially at times of crisis.
Remember that no matter how you or your children feel right now, people typically recover from this level of stress, Dr. Ursano says. So be there for your child, but try not to worry too much about lasting effects.
“We will have reactions in this moment, and some of us will have post-traumatic stress, but the majority of people will do OK after all of this,” Dr. Ursano says. “Try to be in the moment and hope for the future.”