How COVID-19 is affecting children’s mental health—and how you can help them cope

Behavioral Health
Kids' Health
Mom and daughter smiling
By Jessica Hirst

COVID-19 has changed the structure and routine of daily life for nearly everyone, causing us to have to adapt and cope in new ways to an unusual situation. But for younger people, these changes are especially challenging.

“Children and young adults are having an especially hard time right now,” says Patrick Leong, LICSW. “The biggest difficulty for them is how much they’re missing their friends and things that are familiar. So much of a child’s development is the social-emotional piece: playing and interacting with friends.”

As a result of not having their social needs met, more young people are experiencing mental health problems such as isolation, loneliness, boredom, anxiety, and depression, says Leong. He is also seeing more cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is related to anxiety.

For kids with neurodevelopmental differences such as autism, the changes in routine can be even harder to adapt to, leading to more behavioral and emotional problems.

The role of screens and social media

Children and teens are turning to screens even more these days for entertainment, distraction, and social interaction. While constructive online socializing can be beneficial, too much time behind screens can lead to behavioral health issues, says Leong.

“It’s important for parents to properly limit and supervise screen time,” he says. “Social media can lead to thoughts of envy, jealousy, and comparison. Those thoughts can be depressive if social media isn’t being monitored well by parents or if kids are using it too much. Social media is also full of heavy opinions and troubling news, so that’s causing some anger and confusion as well.”

Ways to help young people cope

The good news is that there are ways to help young people better handle these unusual times and hopefully feel more connected and emotionally balanced.

Engage kids in the five senses. “We’re only using one or two of them when we’re online, so activating our other senses is a great thing to do,” says Leong. He suggests activities such as hikes, bike rides, cooking, arts and crafts, playing outside, working out at home using a family workout video on YouTube, having kids rearrange their room, helping them paint one of their walls a different color, or encouraging them to use their hands and get dirty in whatever way works best.

Help kids stay connected with friends, whatever that looks like. “It’s important to remember that child friendships are no less important than adult friendships,” says Leong. While not every family is comfortable creating a social bubble with other families, this is one way to facilitate social time. Other methods might include staying in more frequent touch with family members and friends through video or phone calls, writing postcards or letters, or allowing kids to text their friends more often.

Ensure wise use of screen time. Now more than ever, screen time is a double-edged sword for young people. While the wrong content or too much time online can leave them feeling worse, certain types of interactive screen time can provide connection. In the absence of physical get-togethers, texting, messaging, email, and collaborative online games can provide a positive social outlet. Just be sure to preview content, supervise online activities, use parental controls when needed, and keep screen time in balance with other offline activities.

Spend more time together. “There’s a difference between being in the same house and spending time together,” says Leong. “It can be easy to spend time apart in our own rooms. But take the time to play with kids, talk with them about their day, or include them in something you haven’t before, like a fix-it project around the house.”

Look through the eyes of the child. Imagine yourself in your child’s shoes to better understand what he or she might be feeling and experiencing, says Leong. Ask open-ended questions and let the child know that you are here to listen, empathize, and support.

Educate kids on the psychological effects of COVID. Reassure kids that it’s normal to have feelings such as grief, fear, anger, or loneliness due to factors like changes in routine, loss of social opportunities, missed significant life events, and risks to safety. Use resources like this one from the CDC for help framing the conversation.

Reach out for support. For additional help navigating these unusual times, or if your child is especially affected, don’t hesitate to talk to your primary care doctor or reach out to MultiCare Behavioral Health.

The team at MultiCare Behavioral Health includes pediatric and family-focused behavioral health professionals from Mary Bridge, Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare, and Navos. These compassionate, dedicated practitioners are here to help families gain the behavioral health tools they need to navigate pandemic life.