NEWS

How to Help Kids Still Struggling With Mental Health During the Pandemic

Little girl bored at home with her teddy bear

Mehmet Hilmi Barcin / E+ / Getty

Key Takeaways

  • The pandemic has affected the mental health of children due to disruptions in routine and cancellation of activities and social events.
  • There are ways parents can help children cope.
  • Understanding when your child needs to see a mental health professional can help keep ensure their safety.

No doubt, the pandemic has caused mental strain on everyone, including kids. According to a study published in November 2020, the proportion of children’s mental health-related emergency department visits among all pediatric emergency department visits increased and remained elevated between April and October 2020. Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health-related visits for children aged 5 to 11 increased approximately 24%, and 31% for kids 12 to 17.

Changes and disruptions to routine are mostly to blame, says Parker Huston, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

“We develop habits and tricks that get us through the day easily when we have a routine. One of the biggest stressors and frustrations people have been feeling over the past year is that everything you do has a new process for it or way to think about it,” Huston tells Verywell Family.

For instance, Huston says before the pandemic, kids knew where to go in school and what was expected of them. However, as schools shifted to remote learning, and now that some are going back to in-person learning, uncertainty and inconsistencies arise.

“As soon as we are able to make a new habit or get into a new routine, things might change again. Life always changes, but more than usual there have been a lot of changes in life [recently],” he says.

Parker Huston, PhD

We develop habits and tricks that get us through the day easily when we have a routine. One of the biggest stressors and frustrations people have been feeling over the past year is that everything you do has a new process for it or way to think about it.

— Parker Huston, PhD

No longer being able to socialize with peers in traditional ways, such as at school, during extracurricular activities, or in other social settings, also affects children’s mental health.

“[Kids] had to reimagine what all of that looks like, and that’s a tall order to do in a short period of time without warning,” Huston says.

How Parents Can Help

If you’re noticing your child struggling, there are ways you can help.

Practice Developmental Skills

Teaching children how to manage unexpected changes and disappointments can help them become more resilient when faced with challenges.

For instance, Huston suggests teaching kids how to form new routines and habits by creating a reminder, a routine, and a reward. He points to the fact that his 8-year-old daughter has a new school procedure that required her to think about bringing and wearing a mask to school.

Together they thought about where she would store the mask and how she would remember to bring it to school every day. They decided to put a checklist of all the things she needs for school on the door, and included “mask.”

“When it first started, she was really flustered and it took a lot of extra time and thought to get ready in the morning, but now we have the checklist on the door and she knows exactly what to bring to school. When something changes, we just cross it off or add it to the list, and that’s a new way we deal with school,” says Huston.

Adding in a reward for remembering the mask and other things on the list can help reinforce the practice.

Focus on Emotional Intelligence and Skills

Emotional intelligence involves the ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. While some experts believe emotional intelligence can be learned, others think of it as a characteristic people are born with.

Huston says parents can participate in activities with their children to teach them emotional intelligence, such as reading books together in which the characters face a challenge in life.

“Instead of letting the book do all the conversation, a parent or teacher can ask something after the book,” he says. Questions that can help children expand their emotional intelligence include:

  • How is that person feeling in that moment?
  • How did you feel in that moment?
  • How would you manage the situation they were in?
  • What would you do to try and make it through that situation?

“This helps teach them ways to be resilient and determined and demonstrate coping skills,” says Huston.

Model Coping Skills

When children witness how their parents deal with stressful situations, they may emulate their approach when trying to cope with their own stressors. “If kids see us not adapting well or turning to maladaptive habits to cope with stress, then it doesn’t set a good model for them,” says Huston.

Parker Huston, PhD

If kids see us not adapting well or turning to maladaptive habits to cope with stress, then it doesn’t set a good model for them.

— Parker Huston, PhD

He recommends having discussions with your kids about how you’re feeling stressed or frustrated by saying something like, “I’m unsettled that we can’t do what we planned, but what we’re going to do is watch a funny movie together or cook together.”

“Choose any activity, but walk them through how this is a way of coping with frustration or managing stress you are experiencing,” Huston says. And be intentional about it.

“We can go through the day and do these things internally in our head, but kids don’t benefit from that. They might observe, but don’t understand how that might apply to them, so having conversations with kids at all ages might help them relate,” he says.

Talk About Mental Health

Huston says parents should discuss mental health with their child openly. “Historically we don’t have these conversations, and we wait for there to be a problem before we bring up the idea of mental health. For those of us whose kids might be doing well given all things going on, it’s still a good time to talk about mental health in an age-appropriate way,” he says.

Ways to do this might be to explain mental health challenges you experience or talk about news stories related to mental health. “Kids won’t be able to tell you until adolescent age about stress or anxiety because they don’t know what it means. The more we can have open discussions with them, the more likely they are to express, ‘I’m not feeling good about this’ or ‘I’m feeling worried about this,'” says Huston.

Parker Huston, PhD

Kids won’t be able to tell you until adolescent age about stress or anxiety because they don’t know what it means. The more we can have open discussions with them, the more likely they are to express, ‘I’m not feeling good about this’ or ‘I’m feeling worried about this.'

— Parker Huston, PhD

Once kids explain the anxiety and stress they are experiencing, you can help them make a plan for dealing with it or rehearse being in a certain situation. For instance, if your child is anxious about wearing a mask to school all day, have them practice wearing one at home first.

“We had our kids wears masks around the house for a while and we had conversations about it. This is called desensitization—by experiencing it in a more controlled environment, it demystifies the challenges of it,” says Huston.

For concerns you can’t plan ahead for, such as becoming sick with COVID-19, he recommends having honest conversations about all you are doing as a parent to keep your child safe, as well as what school, the community, and those working in public health are doing to keep everyone healthy.

When Is It Time For a Therapist?

If you have tried everything to help your child, and they are still struggling, the following are a few signs it may be time for them to see a mental health professional.

Losing Interest In Things They Enjoy

Many people cope with stress by engaging in activities they enjoy. However, Alex Boeving Allen, PhD, head of therapy and vice president of clinical strategy at Brightline, says one telltale sign that a child is experiencing anxiety or depression is losing interest in the things they enjoy or being too upset to participate in them.

“If these behaviors are increasing so much that it’s impacting your ability to get through your day as a parent, and your kid’s ability to do fun and meaningful things, then you might need the help of a therapist,” Allen tells Verywell Family.

Reacting With Extreme Emotion

While younger children throw tantrums and get upset when told "no," as kids get older, they learn how to control their emotions. Allen says emotionally dysregulated children might overact, more often, about smaller things. In teens, she suggests looking for mood swings that feel out of proportion to the situation.

Allen acknowledges that mood swings are not uncommon throughout adolescence, but says that "if mood going up and down is derailing your teen from meaningfully connecting with the family, it might be time to seek some support."

Changes in How They Function

If your child displays any of the following, Huston says it may indicate the need for concern:

  • They are not sleeping or eating well.
  • They are typically outgoing and suddenly become reserved.
  • They talk about feeling hopeless or engaging in self-harm.
  • They usually get As and Bs in school, but are getting Cs and Ds.

“When [your child has] a few days of feeling down after hearing something like their soccer season was canceled, that’s understandable, but if it becomes a pattern, bring it up to a professional,” says Huston.

Who to Call

If you suspect your child is struggling with mental health issues, Allen says many children and adolescents, as well as their parents can benefit from a sounding board.

“It’s totally normal to feel sad or anxious when hard things are happening,” she says. “Connecting with a therapist for evidence-based strategies can help you navigate those difficulties as a family.”

Alex Boeving Allen, PhD

It’s totally normal to feel sad or anxious when hard things are happening. Connecting with a therapist for evidence-based strategies can help you navigate those difficulties as a family.

— Alex Boeving Allen, PhD

Huston suggests reaching out to a school mental health professionals, such as a guidance counselor, social worker, or school psychologist because they can refer to resources in the community.

“Also, your primary care provider or pediatrician knows initial questions to ask and can provide resources or see your child to hear more about what they are going through,” he says. “Going to a provider who already has a relationship with your child can be helpful in knowing where to go next.”

What This Means For You

While the pandemic has affected the mental health of children, there are ways parents can help them cope. When your child needs more help than you can provide, seeking out a mental health professional can provide them the support they need.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Leeb RT, Bitsko RH, Radhakrishnan L, et al. Mental health–related emergency department visits among children aged <18 years during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69:1675–1680. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6945a3