Our kids’ mental health is suffering because of the pandemic—here’s what you need to know

A new poll says nearly half of teens are facing new or worsening mental health issues because of the pandemic. How can we help our kids?

Our kids’ mental health is suffering because of the pandemic

We know the pandemic has been hard on our kids. One year in, we're learning more about how the ongoing crisis is affecting their mental health.

A new poll found that nearly half (46%) of all parents surveyed say that their teen has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the start of the pandemic. Nearly half.

Researchers from the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health conducted the poll. They surveyed nearly 1,000 parents from across the country about their kids between the ages of 13-18.

The team found that most parents (73%) say that the pandemic has had a very or somewhat negative impact on their teen's ability to interact with friends.


More parents of teen girls than boys report seeing an increase in their child's anxiety/worry (36% vs 19%) or depression/sadness (31% vs 18%). Parents also saw similar trends in negative changes in their teen's sleep (24% vs 21%), withdrawing from family (14% vs 13%) and aggressive behavior (8% vs 9%).

We know the pandemic is negatively impacting our kids' mental health. What can we do?

Half of the surveyed parents relaxed their family rules related to seeing their friends (52%) and social media (47%) to help their children. Most reported that it helped (81% vs. 70%).

Dr. Gene Beresin, the executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, says it's important to know the warning signs for mental health concerns in kids. Remember, these aren't just issues that affect teens.

Be on the lookout for these types of changes in your child's behavior:

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Preschoolers

School-age kids

Teenagers

Clinginess

Reduced verbal responsiveness

Advanced awareness of dangers

Sleep problems

Sleep problems

Depression

Irritability

Moodiness

Irritability, anger

Fear of separation

Problems with attention

Problems with attention

Tantrums

Somatic complaints: headaches, stomach aches, chest pain

Anticipatory grief: uncertainty about the future, worries about getting ill or transmitting it to loved ones

How can we best support our children? Dr. Beresin says to start, try controlling your own anxiety.

"Many of us are still worried about the current situation, one year later, and living with uncertainty isn't easy," he says. "Many parents and other caregivers are also running out of steam. But anxiety and stress are 'contagious.' Your kids will know that you are nervous or stressed even if you try to hide it."

Here are some things that may help:

  • Get the most credible, fact-based information you can about the virus and school updates in your community, and try to avoid endless social media streams, which can be filled with misinformation, and potentially stress you out more.
  • Talk with folks who support you. This could be your partner, a parent, a friend, a spiritual leader, or another trusted adult you can confide in.
  • Take care of your physical health. Try your best to prioritize sleep and exercise, and use other ways to reduce anxiety, such as meditation, yoga, listening to music, or watching a TV show.
  • If your child asks if you are worried, be honest. They will know if you are not telling them the truth. You can say things like: "Yes, I'm feeling stressed right now, but we have made it this far – a whole year – so I also know we can keep going a little longer."

Ask your kids what they know about COVID-19 and how they feel about it. "School-age kids and teens will have heard a lot about COVID-19 over the past year, including a lot about the different vaccines over the past couple of months and about the timeline for schools opening back up," says Dr. Beresin. "They may have read things online, seen things on TV, heard friends or teachers talk about the illness, or even overheard you talking about it. But there is a lot of misinformation out there." Ask them what they know using open-ended questions, like:

  • What have you heard about the coronavirus or the vaccines?
  • Where did you hear about it?
  • What are your major concerns or worries?
  • Do you have any questions I can help you answer?
  • How are you feeling about school right now?

"Once you know what information they have and what they're most worried about, you can help to fill in any necessary gaps, and ease concerns they may have. Check in with them regularly and give them space to share what's on their mind," says Dr. Beresin.

Don't forget to validate their feelings and concerns and offer reassurance. Take their feelings seriously and let them know you'll support them. Try to focus on gratitude, too. "Encourage your child to reflect on the silver linings of their time at home," says Dr. Beresin. "Did they learn a new skill? Did they spend more time video calling friends and relatives? Choosing to focus on the positives, both big and small, can help you and your family build resilience."

If you have any concerns about your child's wellbeing, seek professional help. "Talk with your pediatrician and get a referral to a mental health professional. Many clinicians are offering telepsychiatry appointments due to COVID-19, and kids can benefit from the convenience of virtual visits from the comfort of their home," says Dr. Beresin.

If you're looking for more resources, Dr. Beresin recommends the Clay Center's Coronavirus and Family Mental Health website for COVID-related support, like helping kids cope with situational anxiety or with feelings of grief and loss. Check out the NY Project TEACH's Family and Parent website for help in identifying any mental health concerns. And for ways to find mental health help for your child, try the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website.

Jamie Orsini is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, military spouse, and a mom to two busy toddlers. In her spare time, Jamie volunteers with the Solar System Ambassador program with NASA/JPL and reads anything she can get her hands on. She’s currently working on her first novel.

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