The experts say that, generally speaking, children are resilient and can weather adversity better than adults. But that doesn’t mean that traumatic events and tragedy don’t significantly impact children.
And as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, many parents wonder if these months in social isolation, being away from school, and perhaps losing a loved one will bring a long-term mental health impact on their children.
COVID-19 is “this great unknown,” says Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Duke University Medical Center. “We don’t know how long this is going to last.” And that can heighten anxiety in children, as it can for adults. “Children certainly are being impacted by this because it’s changed their worlds,” says Dr. Gurwitch.
It has been suggested that, due to the social restrictions and loss of routine lifestyle, the attendant psychosocial stress could further exacerbate the harmful effects on a child’s physical and mental health. This is aside from the constant exposure of children to COVID-19 related news, which most likely aggravates their anxiety and panic.
Recent public crises indicate that children are susceptible to suffering from mental strain. Children survivors of Hurricane Katrina, for example, showed symptoms of disruptive behavior disorder, mood, and anxiety disorders, and many needed intensive case management for up to four years after the storm.
Parents can Help Right Now
Despite the hefty challenge, parents and other caregivers have it within their power to mitigate this upheaval on the kids. “Just because kids are resilient doesn’t mean we don’t need to do anything to help them,” says Dr. Gurwitch. “The majority of children are resilient because we, their trusted parents or caregivers, do something.”
Jennifer Johnston-Jones, Ph.D., a California-based psychologist and author of Transformational Parenting, asserts that parenting during the pandemic is the most critical factor. “The long-term mental health effects on children from the pandemic will vary. How we choose to parent during the pandemic will determine if our children come out of this traumatized or sense that they will be OK,” she says.
Regardless of their age, adds Dr. Johnston-Jones, children look to their parents as a guide. Here are some ways to help them through the pandemic.
1. Maintain a Positive Focus
Research shows focusing on the positive and gratitude can improve mental health, help with sleep, and increase optimism. And even in times of stress and fear like what we’re experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still opportunities to elevate positive experiences, by accentuating “what isn’t happening to us.”
2. Children’s Feelings Need Validation
It is critical to ask your children how they’re feeling, listen to them when they express their feelings, and validate those thoughts. And Dr. Gurwich adds, “don’t hide your feelings either. If you cry in the kitchen, don’t run off and put yourself together and act like it never happened.” Let them know that this is affecting you also.
3. You Need to Make a Plan
After you’ve talked to your kids about how they’re feeling, it’s essential to talk about all the ways you’re staying safe and how you can help those around you. “When worry can fester on its own without any action steps for how to relieve that worry or anxiety, it can overwhelm our children and us,” says Dr. Gurwitch.
4. Social Interaction is to be Encouraged
With kids away from school for so long and unable to be with friends, it’s essential for parents to recognize how meaningful those social interactions still are to them. Parents can allow their tweens and teens to text and video chat without help or encouragement. However, elementary and preschool-age children may need help with virtual interaction by assisting them to meet with their school friends over FaceTime.
5. Monitor Your Children After the Pandemic
Once normalcy (or the new normal) has been established, parents need to continue to pay attention to their child’s emotions. Look out for signs of lingering trauma like withdrawal, anxiety and fear, sleep disturbances, and changes in eating habits. After a global crisis, therapy may be more important than ever for children to learn how to deal with their emotions and restore their emotional balance.
Help Your Students Cope with the Crisis
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Because of our unique role in children’s K-12 education, including online speech therapy, we feel a responsibility to do what we can to assist schools, therapists, and students with this transition to online learning and seclusion. Our therapists are providing complimentary “Support Sessions” to the country’s youth to ensure that our students remain engaged and supported. We are also assisting schools by training their therapists for remote therapy.