How the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Affecting Children's Long-Term Mental Health

If you're worried about how your children will weather the storm of the pandemic, you're not alone. Here's what you need to know about protecting their mental health now and in the future.

For the most part, kids are resilient and tend to bounce back from adversity easier than adults. But that doesn't mean tragedy and trauma can't leave their marks on kids. And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are left wondering if months of isolation, health precautions, and the potential loss of loved ones will have long-lasting mental health implications on their children.

COVID-19 is "this great unknown," says Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Duke University Medical Center. "We don't know how long this is going to last." And that can heighten anxiety in children, as it can for adults.

While it's uncertain how long anxiety will last after the pandemic is over, experts say parents and caregivers can play a role in preventing long-term mental health issues. The first step is understanding how kids are affected by the world right now.

Kids Are Feeling the Impact

In general, kids aren't becoming sick with COVID-19 as severely as adults, so the fear of contracting the virus might not be the biggest driver of anxiety for them. What could be affecting them more is the new normal they are living through.

"Children certainly are being impacted by this because it's changed their worlds," says Dr. Gurwitch. That's especially true if they've had sick family members or loved ones who have died. And the change of routine and the inability to socialize with friends likely added to the feelings of anxiety and upheaval they experienced and may still be going through.

Past public crises show that children can suffer mental strain. Children survivors of Hurricane Katrina, for example, showed symptoms of disruptive behavior disorder, as well as mood and anxiety disorders, and many needed intensive case management up to four years after the storm.

But as with any large-scale crisis, members of marginalized communities will be more likely to develop lasting mental health concerns as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With an increase in job and food insecurity, "disadvantaged people that were disadvantaged before COVID-19 will be further disadvantaged after COVID-19," says Dr. Gurwitch. "And that has a trickle-down to children. If I am unsure of my living situation, if I'm unsure about food—all of that takes a toll and creates greater risk for mental health problems."

Research is just starting to emerge assessing the impacts of the pandemic on children's mental health. And while young people faced a mental health crisis before COVID-19 started spreading globally, the pandemic exacerbated the issue for many young people. Schools are facing hurdles as students return with perhaps more issues than ever.

Young boy looking out window on rainy day
Images by Victoria J Baxter/Getty Images

How Can Parents Help?

The good news is that as parents and caregivers, we may be able to lessen the impact of this upheaval on our kids. "Just because kids are resilient doesn't mean we don't need to do anything to help them," says Dr. Gurwitch. "The majority of children are resilient because we, their trusted parents or caregivers, do something."

Jennifer Johnston-Jones, Ph.D., a California-based psychologist and author of Transformational Parenting says how we parent during the pandemic (and after) is the most important indicator. "The long-term mental health effects on children from the pandemic will vary. How we choose to parent during the pandemic will determine if our children come out of this traumatized, or able to sense that they will be OK," she says.

Regardless of their age, adds Dr. Johnston-Jones, children look to their parents as a guide. Here are ways to help them through the pandemic and its after-effects.

Focus on the Positive

Research shows focusing on the positive and gratitude can improve mental health, help with sleep, and increase optimism. And even in times of stress and fear like what we're experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still opportunities to elevate positive experiences.

Dr. Johnston-Jones suggests making a game of it. "Play the 'glad game'—where we try to find something to be glad about in every situation. This positive thinking game became well known in the 1913 novel Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter where Pollyanna is able to find the good in the most challenging situations," says Dr. Johnston-Jones.

Validate Your Children's Feelings

Supporting kids can take many shapes and look different for every family, but the most important thing we can all do is to be proactive in asking them how they're feeling, listen when they express their feelings, and validate those thoughts.

And don't hide your own feelings either. If you have a cry in the kitchen, don't run off and put yourself together and act like it never happened, says Dr. Gurwitch. Acknowledge that it's a hard, scary time, that we're all feeling a little scared and anxious right now, and that's OK. But reassure your kids that your family is handling it together, as a team.

Teens and tweens are better at hiding their feelings so parents may have to work a bit harder to break the shell, but don't give up and assume they're OK just because they may be putting on a brave face. After all, they still need reassurance from their trusted adults.

Make a Plan

After you've talked to your kids about how they're feeling, it's important to discuss all the ways you're staying safe and how you can help those around you. "When worry can fester on its own without any action steps for how to relieve that worry or anxiety, it can overwhelm us and our children," says Dr. Gurwitch.

Talk to your kids about what can be done to continue staying safe. And also remind them of all the ways they adapted to changes at the height of the pandemic.

Encourage Social Interaction

With most kids out of school at some point during the pandemic, parents know how important those social interactions are to them.Things may not be totally back to the way they were, but do what you're comfortable with to encourage your child to spend time with others.

Monitor Them After the Pandemic

As the world emerges from the pandemic, continue to pay attention to your child's emotions. Experts say to look out for signs of lingering trauma like withdrawal, anxiety and fear, sleep disturbances, and changes in eating habits.

Therapy is always a valid choice, but after a global crisis, it may be more important than ever for children to learn how to process their emotions and resume a normal life.

The Bottom Line

Kids are resilient and they can come out of the COVID-19 pandemic feeling reassured as long as parents and caregivers help them through it. Make sure to validate their feelings, and help them keep their social interactions strong. Don't hesitate to reach out for professional help or check out informative resources, like this guide from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

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