How the Pandemic Affects the Mental Health of Children and Teens

Sad teen in room.

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People's mental and emotional health has taken a devastating blow during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has isolation affected adults but children are also dealing with increased feelings of loneliness, sadness, and grief. Children are not able to socialize with friends and family and this isolation can greatly impact their overall well-being.

Recent Student Suicide Cluster in Las Vegas

An article in The New York Times vividly captured the painful details of the 18 student suicides that occurred over the nine-month period of school closures in Clark County, Las Vegas.The fifth largest school district in the country, feeling the urgency of the situation, began making plans to re-open their doors to in-person learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated disease containment procedures which included the movement of education to the virtual platform. In order to mitigate the risk to teachers, students and minimize community spread, schools across the country closed their doors.

In the wake of this, there was a spike in suicides among students within the Clark County school district, making it a grisly microcosm of a disturbing national trend.

Emergency Response System

In response, the county launched an emergency response system designed to capture students using their school-issued iPad to make concerning searches or who were using worrisome phrasing. This was an effort to be preemptively find students who may be in crisis or at risk of suicide.

For example, a 12-year-old searched "how to make a noose" on his iPad. This led to prompt notification of his father, who then went to the boy’s room and found a noose made of shoelaces around the child’s neck.

The Mental Health Fallout From COVID-19

The year 2020 ushered in abrupt and unforeseen changes to daily life as a once-in a-century financial and health catastrophe was unleashed on the planet. The coronavirus pandemic set in motion stay at home mandates in over 200 countries across the globe.

This meant lockdown and social distancing for billions world-wide, including nearly all of the 55 million American children from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Impact on Children

As the pandemic is still unfolding, the full scope and scale of the consequences of it have yet to be fully understood. However, within this first year, studies regarding the mental health fallout of COVID-19 are revealing an ominous picture of the psychological effects on children.

As children are still developing, their world view and perception of themselves are still unformed. Part of how children come to an understanding of themselves is through their environment. A child will perceive themselves as good when an adult smiles at them when they walk into the room or rewards them.

For children, the world is a mirror and their identity is shaped, in part, by what is reflected back at them. Now imagine that the mirror has been shattered. What happens then?

Children quarantined during the pandemic are significantly more likely to suffer from:

Furthermore, up to 30% of children in areas with social distancing mandates are experiencing symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These children are also more likely to have depression, anxiety as well as sleep and appetite disturbances.

Why Children Have Been Affected

Extensive research shows that fear is contagious, and children are particularly sensitive to the emotional state of others and the adults around them. Adults are typically the source of emotional stability for children.

However, the pandemic took possession of the security of many parents due to the financial ordeal and illness that landed on so many American households.

High Distress

Up to 40% of homes with children under the age of 12 years were classified as a “high distress” group due to suffering and economic hardship caused by the pandemic.

Abrupt Changes to Living Situations and Daily Routines

For some, the changes to life as we knew it led to separation from one or more parents or parental figures due to disruptions in co-parenting arrangements, death or concern for exposure to the virus.

Separation from parents is known to correlate with likelihood of mood disorders, psychosis, death by suicide and poor mental health outcomes overall in adulthood.

Financial Strain and Domestic Abuse

In some households, quarantine resulted in more close contact with family. This, in addition to a surge in stress and financial strain, increased violence and abuse in the home setting. One study reported a tripling of domestic violence incidents during lockdown. In addition, there was a precipitous increase in child abuse, mistreatment, neglect and gender-based violence.

Fifty percent of parents have admitted that concerns about money during the pandemic has affected their parental skills and that this has led to more aggressive behavior towards their children such as yelling and slapping. The significant rise of substance use observed during the pandemic, particularly alcohol, is likely a contributing factor.

The Absence of School

Students are into their second year of disrupted schooling. This is resulting in academic uncertainty, boredom and either decreased or eliminated contact with their peers. The academic consequences will be great particularly for those from a lower socioeconomic status.

Decline in Children's Nutrition Due to Food Insecurity

It's important to consider the importance of what school provides outside of just an education.

For certain families, meals provided at schools make the difference between being food insecure or not. Therefore, children are going without meals and/or the quality of the food they have access to has fallen. There is evidence that pediatricians are noting a sharp increase in the weight of children during quarantine. This is thought to be due to the limited access to whole foods and an increase in cheaper foods or carbohydrate-heavy sweets.

Emotional eating as a self-soothing mechanism and decreased physical activity are also playing a role.

Lack of Health Services

Many schools are the main source of health services for their students, including mental health services. For some, school is the primary or sole source of psychological interventions and mental health awareness information. Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by this.

Up to 57% of such communities access mental health services only from the school setting. Within quarantine, children are going without those benefits.

Psychosocial Benefits of School

The psychosocial aspect of the school setting can also not be overstated and for most, the home cannot replicate these benefits. Play with same-aged peers is crucial to psychological development.

Impact on Younger Children

A child may be engaging with siblings and parents during lockdown, but the significant difference is that those are hierarchical relationships. Parents are either in service of their children or telling their children what to do.

Likewise, within sibling relationships, there is an age-based power differential, with the older sibling usually taking a leadership role, or the younger sibling being indulged. Within the average household, there are no true peer relationships.

Think about how it would be for you, as an adult, if everyone around you was either subservient to you or in a supervisory role. There would be emotional and mental aspects of yourself that would be unchallenged and underdeveloped.

Parents have been known to discourage a child’s craving for acceptance of their peers. However, wanting acceptance to a social group in school is developmentally appropriate and actually has benefits. In the home environment, your acceptance into the fold is a given awarded to you as an accident of birth. You don’t have to compete for it. Competing for acceptance among others who are your equal is what instills in us all those behaviors and tendencies associated with being a well-behaved citizen.

In peer relationships, the child is incentivized toward emotional regulation. They learn to control their behavior as they are challenged by activities that include sharing, helping and waiting their turn. As young people develop the skillset needed for those things they are rewarded with belongingness.

It is within peer relationships that children learn patience, kindness and civility. They also learn the ability to self-soothe as emotional dysregulation will likely lead to social exclusion. Due to social distancing, children are now going without all of those foundation-forming fundamentals which were previously taken for granted.

Impact on Teens

Teenagers have also been going without their peers. The ages between 12 and 18 have been identified by the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson as the Identity versus Role Confusion stage. Many of us recall these ages as awkward and excruciating, but navigating the social challenges of middle school and high school builds resilience and strengthens one’s identity.

Children Are Spending More Time on Their Phones

During the enforced social distancing mandates, many young people have had a dramatic increase in their screen time. This meant watching a crisis develop on the news including the portrayal of death, fear and the pain inflicted by the unemployment crisis. It also meant access to social media containing conflicting stories and, at times, aggressive rhetoric.

Social media also is where there is cyber-bullying and where a person can compare their lives to a pleasant depiction of someone else’s life, all of which can contribute to distress.

Challenges Specific to Children

Young people have limited coping strategies and would therefore be thoroughly unprepared and unarmed to deal with the dramatic and sudden changes brought on by a pandemic. They also, depending on their age, have limited language with which to express their pain and confusion. An inability to fully describe the psychological turmoil one is experiencing is an added frustration.

Feelings of Hopelessness

Children tend to be more “in the moment” and focused on the present. This is sometimes what adults envy most about children, but during a global catastrophe, this is a huge disadvantage. An inability to picture life beyond the pandemic would leave one without hope and would be devastating.

This also means being unable to imagine healing from the depression and negative feelings that COVID-19 brought on for so many. Unfortunately, this may make suicide feel like a viable option.

One of the Clark County students who ended their life left a note in which he wrote, “I have nothing to look forward to.”

How to Take Action

So, what do we do? In order to repair or undo some of the damage wrought by the coronavirus, certain actions are being taken.

Improving access in the community to the mental healthcare services previously provided for by schools is being prioritized. Clark County, for example, has made virtual counseling readily available to its students.

Early Intervention

Early intervention procedures and social services for children known to have pre-existing psychiatric diagnoses is needed. This is particularly true for households of marginalized communities as statistics bear out that this is a more vulnerable population.

As we learn about some of the psychological devastation this is causing children, becoming proactive just makes sense at this time.

Parents and Loved Ones Can Seek Resources

Parents and parental figures can find resources to learn how to reassure their children and provide age-appropriate education about news events. An adult voice to help guide a child’s understanding of these turbulent times is important so they are not left to interpret the news on their own.

Adults should also make every efforts to maintain their child’s daily routine. Continue co-parenting arrangements, if at all feasible while considering COVID-19 safety, being that we understand contact with both parents to be essential for optimal emotional development.

Researchers also recommend setting aside 15 minutes daily for your child to focus on fun activities. This time can also be used to listen to any concerns or questions your child might have.

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Article Sources
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