The pandemic has worsened the child mental health crisis. How parents are handling it all.

·7 min read

Before the pandemic began to spread like wildfire around the world, Anne Gomez Rubin says her son was an easy-going kid with “lots of sunshine in his spirit.” But once shutdowns and quarantines began to replace old routines, Gomez Rubin says she began to notice more anxiety and worry than ever before in her 9-year-old. It’s a common story for many parents all around the nation. Go to any online parenting Facebook group, or read the tweets of any mom, dad or guardian and you’ll no doubt find stories about youngsters acting out due to loneliness, anxiety and depression. But it’s more than just anecdotal evidence.

A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research confirms there has been a strong negative mental health impact on our youth due to COVID-19 and pandemic lockdowns. The study reviewed numerous articles and found the effects were even greater depending on variables such as pre-existing mental health conditions and being economically underprivileged. Additionally, in recent months the CDC has noted a surge in mental health-related emergency department visits among children throughout the pandemic, further suggesting a mental health crisis among our nation’s youth.

“Children, teens and their families across the nation are struggling with feelings of overwhelm, stress and uncertainty during this pandemic and their mental health is suffering,” says psychologist and integrative mental health expert Roseann Capanna-Hodge. “Increased difficulties with attention, motivation and learning are prevalent right now due to difficulties with virtual learning, a lack of movement and exercise and heightened stress.”

Shefali Tsabary, child psychologist and meditation teacher, agrees, saying, "Anxiety levels among our kids are rising. Because this is a new environment, we need to be very empathetic and in tune to the fact that symptoms do not show up transparently in our children."

Gomez Rubin witnessed it first hand with her own son, who spent nearly a year in virtual school — an experience that can be even more isolating for children in an only-child household.

“During the pandemic, we've spent so much time together, and in some cases, my husband and I have noticed that our son thinks of himself as our equal — meaning that he takes on a lot of adult worries about the pandemic, because that's what he sees us do,” says Gomez Rubin. “This time has really made me wish he could stay a kid for a little longer without worrying about when his parents will be vaccinated and whether or not his teachers are safe at school.”

Gomez Rubin is also a teacher and dean at a school, and has noticed the mental health effects on the teenagers around her.

“This has been incredibly hard on them. They are in a moment where developmentally, they are supposed to be differentiating from their parents and forging their own identities, and since their freedom has been cut off in many ways, it's been really hard for them to thrive,” she says.

Capanna-Hodge points to the APA Stress in America Survey, which further reveals heightened stress among teens and adults alike (50 percent report the pandemic has halted their plans for the future). She also cites a 2021 survey report by Common Sense titled “Coping with COVID-19," which states that depression and anxiety have increased over the past two years, especially for LGBTQ+ youth and individuals whose family members caught the coronavirus.

“Kids and adults alike are really struggling with staying focused while learning and working from home. Sitting for hours upon end whilst staring at a screen isn’t conducive to learning or physical or mental health,” says Capanna-Hodge. “The brain and body need movement to get oxygen to the brain and release those all-important neurotransmitters necessary for attention and motivation.”

Lorraine Quintana Prieto, a social worker and mother of two in South Florida, says her eldest daughter, who is in kindergarten, has also been struggling.

“My daughter was already a reserved and shy person, but (now) she’s just afraid to initiate communication with kids,” says Quintana Preito. “She gets embarrassed. She wasn’t like that before the pandemic hit the world’s fan.”

Quintana Prieto says it’s been difficult to watch her daughter struggle, especially as she grows and becomes more self-aware.

“Her teacher has had two conferences with us mostly to talk about how she’s a loner but can tell that she doesn’t want to be,” she says.

Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist with expertise in parenting and child development, says she’s seen similar behaviors in her own practice

“Kids really thrive with a sense of predictability. ... And certainly in this last year, any type of routine or rhythm has been severely altered,” she says. “Kids have been left alone, asking themselves a lot of questions: ‘Why is this happening? Did I do something wrong? Am I safe?’”

Kennedy recommends parents talk to their children to help them understand the changes, how they feel about them, and to remind them that none of it is their fault. She also recommends helping them get into a new rhythm.

“ their distress, have a surge of lots of uncomfortable feelings, which can come out in grace, tantrums, increased rudeness, increased depression, increased anxiety,” she says. “I can see in my own practice, how those issues have intensified during this period.”

Lydia Elle, a mother in Southern California and Founder of Supplies for Allies, says the pandemic hit her and her 11-year-old daughter London’s mental health hard as well.

“Add to the health pandemic the racial one, and we definitely had quite a bit to constantly process. ... She was (also) in remote school for a year and, as an only child, it was really hard,” says Elle. “The isolation exacerbated the harsh reality the pandemic was creating.”

But Elle says that despite the challenges, her daughter’s mental health is still in good shape. Things that helped? Regular check-ins between mother and daughter, as well as with a therapist, and doing what they could to prioritize mental health in the household.

“I also realized that I needed to scale back from some of my more stringent requirements (like screen time and bedtime) to again make sure she had outlets for expression and to connect with her community too,” says Elle.

These strategies coincide with what Capanna-Hodge recommends.

“How parents are managing their own stress and mental health has a major influence on how their children are coping,” she says. “Ultimately, children learn how to cope with stressors by watching how their parents stress and problem solve, so parents need to take care of themselves so they can be good role models in stress management.”

So how else can parents, guardians, and other adults help children through these difficult times? Allison Chase, a psychologist at Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center, says it’s important to keep an eye on their child’s eating and sleeping habits, general mood, as well as their social interactions and their academic behaviors.

Chase also reminds parents of other problematic behaviors that might arise, including “obsessive or repetitive behaviors, as well as eating disordered behaviors like restriction, purging and over-exercising.”

Changes in motivation or ability to complete tasks could be indicative of declining mental health. She also highly encourages creating new methods of coping.

“These could include setting beneficial schedules, using breathing techniques and mindful activities to manage well as setting up behavioral challenges to promote healthful behaviors,” says Chase.

Kennedy also reminds parents that the amount of isolation so many kids have experienced can lead to many of them feeling alone, judged or misunderstood.

“If we think about the things our kids are struggling with, they're so anxious, depressed or feeling really down. When you think about it, (you say) ‘Okay, I can connect to that ... and it takes a little bit of heaviness away because (you’re) sharing the load,’” says Kennedy. She recommends doing a lot of listening instead of telling, supporting instead of solving and being present, expressing interest.

“My job isn't to take my kid out of the feeling, or minimize the feeling, or convince my child to feel better or happier. My job is to kind of sit next to my child. So my child knows I'm here,” says Kennedy. “For example, so my child says, ‘Oh, I can't believe I'm not going to do my gymnastics meet this year.’ Instead of ‘That's true, sweetie, but at least you have, you know, whatever you have. ... Instead, I say, ‘You're really bummed about that. Tell me more.’ That helps our kid so they don’t feel so alone.”

— Video produced by Jenny Miller


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