Jan 7, 2021, 11:35:16 AM CST Jul 7, 2021, 9:01:30 AM CDT

COVID-19 and your child's mental health

Watch for signs of depression during COVID-19 and know how to support your child’s mental well-being

Girl outside school Girl outside school

The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for everyone, including kids and teens. Disruptions to routines, changes at school, and isolation from friends and family can take a toll on kids' mental health. Add in the health challenges and other uncertainties that many families face, and it's easy to understand why children may be feeling overwhelmed.

How is COVID-19 affecting children and teens' mental health?

The number of children and teenagers seeking help for anxiety or depression during the pandemic is rising across the country. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the percentage of children ages 5-11 seeking mental health care at emergency departments in 2020 increased by 24% from 2019. For children ages 12-17, mental health-related emergency room visits increased 31% over the previous year.

"The pandemic has been difficult, especially for kids who already struggle with depression and anxiety," says Brooke Gomez, LPC, a clinical therapist at Children's Health℠. "One of the things we advocate for mental health is reaching out, socializing and leaning on a social support system. But because of COVID-19, now we're telling families to do the opposite and stay socially distanced, to protect their physical health."

Kids may also be experiencing disappointment or grief about losing time with friends or missed milestones like graduations, school dances, sporting events or other extracurricular activities. One national survey of 3,300 high school students conducted early in the pandemic showed that 30% felt unhappy and depressed much more than usual. As the pandemic continues, those feelings may persist or deepen.

"Many kids are grieving a loss of a sense of normalcy," Gomez says.

How can parents support their child's mental health during COVID-19?

To support kids' mental health during this challenging time, Gomez recommends parents work to keep lines of communication open at all times.

Check in routinely

Make a habit of daily check-ins with your kids to ask them how they're doing and how their day is going. Make these conversations part of your daily routine, either at dinnertime or just before kids go to bed.

"Ask your kids to share the high point of their day and the low point of their day," Gomez suggests. "Or ask them to give you a ‘feeling word' to describe their day."

Listen and validate

If your child expresses feelings of sadness or worry, resist the urge to "fix" the problem immediately. Instead, let them know that it's okay – and even understandable – to feel this way right now.

"Allowing kids to talk about their feelings helps them process those emotions," says Gomez. "That's why it's so important for parents to just listen. Kids need to feel that support and validation."

Making it a point to check in on kids' daily mental health gives them a window of opportunity to ask for help if or when they need it.

"It's important to ask our kids questions about how they're doing and be curious. Sometimes we may have an idea of what we think they might be experiencing and feeling, but it turns out that they're actually feeling sad about something completely different," Gomez explains.

Help kids focus on what they can control

One way to help kids handle stress and anxiety during the pandemic is to help them focus on aspects of life they can control right now.

"Focusing on the things that we have control over – when there is a lot we don't have control over – is important," Gomez says.

Remind kids they can make choices to try to stay healthy, including wearing a mask, staying physically distanced from others and washing their hands.

Kids can also choose to put their extra time at home to good use. Encourage them to pick up new hobbies – like learning to draw or play the guitar – or to return to an activity like baking, reading or crafting that they have previously enjoyed.

Finally, help kids understand that life will eventually get back to normal.

"It's important to remind kids that the pandemic is not going to last forever and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Gomez says.

How can I tell if my child is depressed during COVID-19?

Given the many challenges caused by the pandemic, many kids may experience brief or fleeting episodes of anxiety, sadness or depression during COVID-19. But if these episodes persist or become more severe, you should seek professional help.

Ask your pediatrician to conduct a mental health screening for your child if you notice any of the following warning signs of depression:

  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Disinterest in former pastimes or hobbies
  • Prolonged episodes of sadness or anger
  • Sleeping much more or less than normal
  • Abrupt increase or decrease in appetite
  • Lashing out at others
  • Extreme self-judgment
  • Use of alcohol or other controlled substances
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

"It's typical for people to experience sadness for a day or two, but sadness that lasts two or more weeks could be an indicator of depression," Gomez says. "Look for any impairment in functioning such as a decline in grades, inability to take care of oneself or isolation from loved ones."

What should I do if my child is showing signs of depression during COVID-19?

If you notice any of the warning signs of depression in your child or teen, seek an appointment with your child's pediatrician. They can conduct an initial mental health screening and refer you to an appropriate mental health professional.

It's also helpful to know that your child or teen does not have to meet criteria for a mental health disorder to benefit from therapy. Many people can experience relief from the sadness, stress or grief of the pandemic through therapy.

If your child faces a mental health emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. If needed, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline by calling 1-800-273-8255. Kids facing a mental health crisis can also text with counselors by texting the word "CONNECT" to 741741.

"There are evidence-based treatments that can help children and teens learn to cope and live a fulfilling life," Gomez says. "Ultimately, asking for help when we are struggling is a sign of strength."

Lastly, Gomez encourages parents to practice their own self-care during this time – whether that's taking time for yourself, reaching out to your social support network or starting your own therapy. "When parents support themselves, it allows them to better support their child," she says.

The % of children ages 5-11 seeking mental health care at ERs grew 24% in 2020 according to @CDCgov. @Childrens shares how parents can support their child's mental health during #COVID19.

Learn more

Children's Health is committed to supporting your family during the pandemic. Our psychologists and psychiatrists can help children and teens manage feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health.

You can also access emotional care and support from the comfort of your home with Virtual Visit Behavioral Health. With a behavioral health care appointment, you can speak to a board-certified psychiatrist or licensed therapist using video technology. Learn more about Virtual Visit Behavioral Health.

For more resources on parenting through the pandemic and keeping your family healthy during this time, visit the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.

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