When the news regarding the coronavirus and the disease it causes (COVID-19) first emerged, our initial reaction was to protect our physical health. For mamas-to-be, the immediate goal was to stay healthy before, during, and after childbirth.

But as more news emerges, we’re finding that it’s not only our physical health we need to focus on. We need to focus on our mental health — and that includes our kids’ mental and emotional health.

In this article, we’ll explore the ways to support children in the midst of a pandemic, including:

  • Understanding the emotional and mental impact of COVID-19 on children
  • Causes of increased anxiety and mental health struggles
  • Practical tips for your supporting your child’s mental health

The Impact of COVID-19 on Your Child’s Mental Health

It’s not surprising that a global pandemic might be upsetting to a child. Not only is the thought of a new virus scary, but seemingly overnight, your child’s world (as s/he knew it) changed. From the lockdown to changes in parental time at home to cancelled playdates and postponed sports, all of this change at once can be upsetting. Children might feel anxious or worried, and it might manifest in many ways, including:

  • Increased temper tantrums
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Nightmares
  • Clinginess

Some children might not tell you about their concerns, but then spend the day ruminating on their fears.

The virus itself isn’t the only way that your child’s mental health has been impacted. During the pandemic, children have been (on average) less physically active, spending more time watching tv, impacted by changes to his/her microbiome, and faced with new social norms. All of these things (which we dive into in the next section) impact your child’s mental health.

More Screen Time = Less Physical Activity

Since the emergence of the pandemic (especially during the lockdown), children were less physically active and spent more time watching TV or playing video games. Early studies found that the average screen usages for children jumped up to 30 hours per week. That’s not a typo — children spent almost a full work week on screens. There’s little surprise why though.

  • Schools went virtual, which obviously increased screen time but it also meant no more daily PE or recess
  • Playdates, sports, and extracurricular activities were canceled
  • Playgrounds were taped up

This meant that many outlets for physical activity were suddenly stripped away from children.

Let’s compound the issue: many parents were working at home, which meant kids would often watch TV or the iPad while mom and dad were busy.

How does this affect your child’s mental health? 

Researchers found that after just one hour of screen time, children experienced increased risk of:

  • Decreased psychological well-being
  • Less curiosity
  • Reduced self-control
  • Increased distractibility
  • Less emotional stability
  • Difficulty finishing tasks

And that was just after one hour. If your child has been watching more TV than usual, don’t beat yourself up. These are trying times for all of us. The lesson here isn’t to feel bad or guilty. On the flip side, the lesson here is to feel empowered to make different choices — ones that are good for us and our child’s mental health. Try setting timers for screens or reserving it for times when you really need the peace and quiet — like when you’re on a conference call for work.

Changes to the Microbiome

We know the microbiome is essential for our physical health and mental health. That’s right — your microbiome supports your brain too! (source) Unfortunately, the microbiome is taking a hit right now. Increased hand washing and sterilizing is affecting your gut health. (source) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stresses more sanitization to limit the spread of COVID-19, but you can take a few extra steps to support your gut health. We’ll touch more on this later.

Increased Exposure to Risky Environments

For some children, the daily trip to school was an escape from an unhappy home environment. Children who saw school as a refuge from domestic violence or abuse were now faced with little to no break.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has seen increases in domestic violence, childhood abuse, incest, drug/alcohol addiction, as well as a lack of supervision when parents are out of the house (and no babysitters are available). An unhappy home environment can increase the risk of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and general unhappiness.

If you need help, call the Domestic Violence hotline. Call 1-800-799-7233.

New Social Norms

As if the other issues weren’t enough, children also have to get used to new cultural norms of social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding public places, and avoiding human contact. Children with OCD tendencies may be triggered, and they may see an increase in severity of their symptoms. Likewise, children with sensory disorders may struggle to wear masks.

8 Ways to Protect Your Little One’s Mental Health

Phew! This is a lot of heavy stuff, but there’s good news. There are plenty of ways to support your child’s mental health.

  1. Keep your kids busy with good-for-brain activities like puzzles, art, dancing, learning a new musical instrument or cooking
  2. Boost your child’s immune system 
  3. Support your child’s microbiome with probiotics and food
  4. Check in with your child daily and ask how they are doing with all of the changes. For quieter kids, you could have them draw a picture a day about how they are feeling
  5. Teach your child how to calm the nervous system. Show them how to do deep belly breathing, visualization, prayer and other mindfulness activities
  6. Get plenty of daily touch! Hugs, foot rubs, tickle fights, it’s so important for kids to be touched in healthy ways daily. Hugs boost serotonin and other endorphins. Remind them that even though they have to social distance from others, they can be close to family. They don’t have to be afraid of physical contact.
  7. Get plenty of outdoor exercise (even just running and playing tag in the yard is good for mental health) (source)
  8. Spend time together as a family, doing fun activities (reading together, playing board games). Laughing helps to ease tension.
  9. Reserve screen time for special times in day or week. We allow our kids to do screens when Faith naps as a sort of “siesta” for the family.

For children returning to school:

Children returning to school may have a unique set of fears. Be sure to share age-appropriate facts with your child, including what new policies he or she should expect at school. Let your child process this and give plenty of opportunity to ask questions. If masks are required at your child’s school, let him or her pick one out. Continue to ask questions and allow space for your child to process once school starts and their routine looks different.

For children who are homeschooling:

Even homeschoolers and virtual learners are affected. Homeschoolers who were used to lots of co-oops, field trips, and library outings will have to get used to school without their favorite activities. Just as with children returning to school, let your child know about big changes well ahead of time. This gives your child time to process these changes. If your child wasn’t previously homeschooled, he or she may be sad about leaving his or her friends. Try scheduling video calls or outdoor playdates with their friends.

When to Seek Professional Help

In addition to the above tactics, recognize that you — or your child — may benefit from professional help at some point during this pandemic, and that’s okay.

“If you get to the point that your anxiety/worry is overwhelming you to the extent that you are having a fair amount of difficulty functioning in life, it may be time to consider reaching out for professional help. Not everyone needs professional help, but some people do.  It is not a sign of weakness to get help,” says Dr. Brian Briscoe, a psychiatrist and program director of Next Step 2 Mental Health.

If you or your child need help, mental health care can help you get back on track. In the spirit of the #EndtheStigma campaign, repeat after me: it’s not a sign of weakness if you need help, mama.

Remember, Mama…

Although living through a pandemic wasn’t on my 2020 bucket list (yeesh!), here we are. But together, we are strong. With a little grace (and a lot of immune-support), we’ll get through this and come out stronger than ever!