The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our entire world in ways we never imagined. While some people consider the disruption of daily routines to be a bothersome inconvenience, others experience fear, stress and anxiety as they strive to cope with significant changes at work, school and home. In particular, children are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression, disruptive behaviors, and sleep issues during this community crisis.
From pre-school to high school, children of all ages were suddenly prevented from seeing their friends every day and forced to isolate at home. To make matters worse, families were separated from grandparents and loved ones because of strict social distancing guidelines. So it’s no surprise the pediatric mental health community is seeing an increase in mental health issues among children. The efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines are encouraging hope that some of the stressors from this global pandemic will be alleviated. However, living through it will likely have a lasting impact on how today’s children perceive and react to sudden and unexpected change as adults.
How the Pandemic Has Affected Pediatric Mental Health
From toddlers to teenagers, every child will likely experience some challenges as they learn to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, even if they haven’t been infected with the virus. These challenges include:
- Changes in their routines – having to physically distance from family, friends, and worship community
- Breaks in continuity of learning – virtual learning environments, technology access and connectivity issues
- Breaks in continuity of health care – missed well-child and immunization visits, limited access to mental, speech, and occupational health services
- Missed significant life events – grief of missing celebrations, vacation plans, and/or milestone life events
- Lost security and safety – housing and food insecurity, increased exposure to violence and online harms, threat of physical illness and uncertainty for the future
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trauma experienced during early development stages can continue to affect children across their lifespan. Many children will likely remember the pandemic as a significant event in their history, and will look back on it as a time of fear and uncertainty. Fortunately, children and teens often demonstrate strong resilience during times of stress. Your child’s pediatrician can also serve as a valuable resource, providing guidance and encouragement as you support your child through this challenging time.
Signs of Depression and Anxiety in Children
Young children, including infants and toddlers may respond to the changes in their daily routines by experiencing backward progress with developmental milestones. You might notice your youngest child is fussier, more irritable, and crying more than usual. You might also notice older children experiencing sleep regression or waking up more often during the night than they used to. Anxiety in children and adults can present itself with physical symptoms, like stomach aches and constipation. Young children may also show more signs of separation anxiety, and may express their frustration by hitting, biting or throwing more tantrums.
Older children and teens might show signs of stress, anxiety, or depression through changes in mood and behavior. This is not unusual for their development, but they may show increased irritability or get into more conflicts with family and friends due to the stress of the pandemic. Older children and teens may also show signs of distress by being less interested in friends and activities they used to enjoy.
Supporting Your Child’s Mental Health
Parents, don’t lose hope! If you have noticed behavioral changes in your children it may signal the need for extra help helping in coping with the pandemic. Thankfully, there are many ways to support your child’s mental health during and after the pandemic.
Start by talking with them about how they are feeling about the big changes in their life. Check in with them on a regular basis in regards to how changes in schedules and routines are affecting them. Be vigilant and trust your parents intuition. If a child’s fear and anxiety seem out of control, schedule an appointment with a licensed pediatric specialist.
Pediatric mental health experts also recommend the following for parents:
- Maintain a normal routine.
- Talk, listen, and encourage expression.
- Give honest and accurate information.
- Teach simple steps to stay healthy.
- Be alert for any change in behavior.
- Reassure children about their safety and well-being.
It’s also important to stay connected. Reach out to friends and family via phone or video chats.
When you know what to look for, you can be proactive by talking with your children, listening to them, and showing you are there to support them. If you have concerns about how your child is handling the stress of the pandemic, don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician and advocate for your child’s mental health. Early intervention is key.