Among many unanswered questions right now is what effect this pandemic will have on the mental health of children. A recent paper, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, documents elevated anxiety and depression in children under lockdown in China. Although it’s still early to know for certain what the exact toll will be, anecdotally a lot of parents are reporting increased signs of anxiety, stress and depression in their children.
So, what actions can parents take right now in order to help their children cope with this crisis in a healthy way? We turned to the experts to find out.
Children remember actions more than words
“Kids will feel more secure in general when parents present themselves as calm and positive,” says Sarah Kate Bearman, an assistant professor of educational psychology at University of Texas at Austin. Plus, as Bearman points out, staying calm and positive helps the parents cope better as well.
Amy Smith, an occupational therapist and director of global business development at Enable My Child, agrees. “Kids are going to see how you are reacting and process that more than what you are actually saying,” Smith says. As she points out, children tend to remember how a parent is acting, rather than their specific words. If a parent is really stressed, anxious or otherwise worked up, that is what a child will remember, more than what they said.
When it comes to interacting with your children, staying calm and positive will go a long way toward helping them cope with the situation at hand. That doesn’t mean downplaying the risks of what is happening, but it does mean presenting the information in a way that won’t make a child unnecessarily anxious.
One way to do that is to present children with productive ways to stay safe, such as washing their hands and maintaining six feet of distance, and describing the other protective measures within their power. It also helps to explain, in an appropriate way, why these precautions are important.
“There needs to be a why with these new rules,” Smith says.
Routines are important
One of the most important things parents can do to help their children is cultivate routines. Examples include waking up at the same time, establishing consistent meal-times and carving out a schedule for school and work. The more predictable you can make the schedule, the better. It also helps to incorporate daily physical activity and spend some time outdoors, as both have been shown to be good for mental health.
“[This] might mean maintaining [your] pre-COVID routines or establishing new ones, but having some amount of predictability is helpful for children,” Bearman says. As tempting as it may be to let everything slide, and as hard as it is to maintain some structure, this will help children hang on to a sense of normal in a world that is anything but. (And let’s be honest: Predictability is good for adults as well.)
Whatever your situation is, whatever your constraints are, it’s worth the effort to create a sense of structure and predictability, whatever that might mean for you and your family.
“It does take some thoughtfulness and creativity to try and keep things normal,” Smith says.
Watch for changes in behaviour
As Bearman notes, some regressions are normal, whether it is thumb-sucking, toileting accidents, increased clinginess or other behaviours your child had outgrown. However, as both Smith and Bearman point out, it’s the changes in behaviour that you need to keep a close eye on. If a normally outgoing child becomes withdrawn, or a normally cheerful child seems sad all the time or if a child has a harder waking up or starts acting out a lot more than usual, these are behaviours parents need to keep a close eye on.
“If a child isn’t able to do their normal given responsibilities or activities, that’s a really big red flag,” Smith says.
Some kids will be able to verbalize what is going on, while many won’t. If a child wants to talk about their emotions, it is important to listen to them.
“Don’t ignore those warning signs, especially if they are verbalizing it to you,” Smith says.
As Smith points out, a child being willing and able to talk about their emotions is a best case scenario, a sign that they feel comfortable talking with you, and are also able to verbalize what is going on. This also gives parents the opportunity to listen about what is going on, and to help them cope. That said, most kids are still developing the tools to understand and describe their emotions.
“Many children haven’t developed that level of awareness yet,” Bearman says. In that case, it’s important to be aware of your child, in the event they might need more help.
Seek help if behavioural changes persist
If your child exhibits changes in behaviour that are ongoing, lasting for several weeks or more, it’s advisable to seek out additional help. It’s also essential to get help if a child seems to be in danger of hurting themselves or others. Help could be in the form of therapy sessions, which can be done via video-conference. It’s also worth calling your paediatrician for advice.
“It is normal and OK to be having a range of feelings right now,” Smith says. “You need to be careful [if] you are starting to see those emotions overtake your daily life and activities.”