The year 2020 substantially changed the landscape of our lives. Since then, many of us have changed how we do our jobs, engage with family and friends, and even shop for groceries. The impact that COVID-19 has had on us as individuals and as a society is far-reaching—altering our lives on a day-to-day basis and modifying the way we think and view the world. Emerging research also shows that COVID-19 and subsequent quarantine has had an impact on school-age children as well.
Impact of COVID on mental health and functioning
COVID-19 forced social isolation and quarantine among millions of people across the country, including children. Many children stopped attending school with several months left in the school year, not knowing when or if they would return. The loss of the school year and forced isolation eliminated the possibility for in-person social stimulation and peer-to-peer interaction.
Studies have shown that this contributed to increased mental health disorders among children, including post-traumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorder, grief, and acute stress disorder. Findings also suggest increased clinginess, irritability, anxiety, and inattention due to increased electronic time. Parents, educators, and mentors can use strategies to help children navigate their emotions and adjust healthily to the changes that COVID-19 has brought about.
How to communicate with children about COVID
Surprisingly, communicating with children is comparable to connecting with other adults. Both circumstances require the use of healthy communication skills.
Maintain eye contact, get down to their level (sitting on the couch with them, squatting down to see their eyes), and engage in nonverbal communications (head nod, smile). These actions are essential tools to show children that you are interested and care about what they say.
Validation is an essential part of healthy communication, as it sends a message to your child that their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives make sense in any given situation. Validation does NOT necessarily mean agreeing with them. Some examples of validating statements include:
- “It makes sense why you feel that way.”
- “I can understand why you thought that.”
- “That must have been hard (scary, difficult, challenging) for you.”
- “I see why you felt (excited, disappointed, scared, worried).”
- “Tell me more about why you felt or thought that way.”
Not only is healthy communication critical to help process difficult experiences such as COVID-19 and related emotions, but it’s also vital for healthy child development and parent-child relationships. Studies show that when adults maintain consistent communication with their children, kids are less likely to act defiantly and behave in ways that require discipline.
What you can do as a family
When COVID-19 emerged, children’s daily schedules were turned upside down, contributing to feelings of helplessness and anxiety. To help kids feel more in control and to help relieve stress through expectation, create a family routine for them (and you) to follow. Creating a routine after school and around bedtime, dinnertime, and homework time has been shown to:
- Improve family functioning
- Improve academic success
- Improve sleep habits
- Develop healthy social skills
- Strengthen resilience in a time of crisis
Try to start the bedtime routine around the same time each evening and include 1–3 simple behaviors as part of the routine. That can consist of changing into pajamas, brushing teeth, showering, or getting a glass of water. Routines around dinner time and other daily events are going to look different for each family. Find a time frame and behaviors that work with your family and your family’s schedule.
Behavioral strategies for children
Journaling is a way to externalize emotions and get them out from inside your head. This practice helps provide clarity, reduces stress, and improves problem-solving skills and physical health. Encourage your child to journal freely and give your child the space, privacy, and freedom to determine whether they want to share their journal entries with you or keep them private. They can journal with words, pictures, doodles—anything goes.
As another strategy, it is no surprise that many people find art relaxing. What may be surprising is that studies have demonstrated that engaging in art activities (i.e., painting, scrapbooking, clay, coloring) substantially reduces the stress hormones in your body. Encourage your child to engage in art activities.
Talk to your doctor
If you think your child may be struggling with a mental illness due to COVID-19, talk to your doctor or medical provider. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a pediatric therapist or another mental health provider to help your child successfully work through stress and anxiety related to COVID-19. Your doctor may also be able to identify additional interventions such as medication, supplements, and other ancillary services.
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Jacquelyn Buffo is a licensed professional counselor with experience and expertise in substance abuse and mental health issues. She received her MS in mental health counseling from Capella University and is a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor through the state of Michigan. She is also in the process of receiving her certification in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Jacquelyn has experience working with clients suffering from addiction and mental health issues on an in-home, residential, and outpatient basis. Currently, she works with adolescents and adults with Borderline Personality Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder through Henry Ford Health System.