COVID-19-related school closures have affected over 1.5 billion children around the world. Concern has been raised about adverse mental health consequences of social isolation, lack of access to usual therapies and activities, and family stress related to finances and illness. Many parents — seeing their children experiencing anxiety, sadness and behavior challenges — are wondering how all of this will affect kids in the long term. While this situation is difficult for everyone, the good news is that kids are resilient — and parents can help foster that resilience. Even though the coronavirus crisis is stressful and could lead to long-term struggles for some kids, what you do now can make a big difference down the road.
For some children this may not be a traumatic time, especially if they do not interpret what is happening as traumatic. For other Children who have gone through the death or hospitalization of a loved one due to COVID, or who have been very sick themselves, may experience those events as traumatic. Kids who have been quarantined in a violent or abusive situation are also at high risk for trauma right now. That said, the stress that children have been experiencing over the past few months might have other significant consequences that don’t meet the clinical definition of trauma.
As parents and caregivers, we can’t completely protect our children from the stress of this situation, but there are strategies we can use to support their mental health — now and as the challenges continue.
Adjust your expectations
“It’s normal to not be yourself when so much is taken away from you,” says Dr. Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “A lot of kids won’t bounce back entirely until the crisis has passed.”
Empathize with their feelings
Clearly validating your child’s emotions can make a big difference, even when you can’t solve the problem. You might say, “It seems like you’re really sad about how this summer is looking. I know how much camp means to you.” Give your child space to talk about what’s upsetting them, and don’t rush to fix their difficult emotions.
Take a step back
Howard recommends identifying a couple of big developmental milestones that are really important for your child right now. For example, this could be completing tasks independently or being more respectful of siblings — anything that your child needs to master as they continue growing and learning.
Find opportunities for practice
Once you know what areas of growth to prioritize, see if you can find small ways for your child to work on these skills. Maybe it’s rewarding cooperative play between siblings, working up to 20 minutes of reading independently or practicing doing chores without help.
Don’t sweat the rest
Right now, keeping up with these major skills is plenty for most kids and families to deal with. “Resilience means putting one foot in front of the other and meeting your developmental milestones,” says Dr. Howard. It doesn’t mean learning new languages and reorganizing your whole house, and it doesn’t mean that your kids need to be doing everything you might have expected before the coronavirus crisis. Letting go of the idea that everyone should be on their best behavior can make things a little easier on you and your kids alike.
Whether or not clinical trauma is involved, the main thing is to look out for significant changes in your child’s feelings or behavior that don’t go away over time. “If a child is withdrawn from the family or has stopped caring about interests and activities that they used to enjoy, those are red flags of something going on,” says Dr. Howard. “It could be adjustment or it could be trauma.” If you do think your child would benefit from mental health support, Dr. Howard recommends looking for a provider who offers trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). TF-CBT is an evidence-based treatment designed especially for children and teenagers and it can generally be provided effectively via telehealth, so your child can get treatment while following social distancing guidelines.
By Marion White, MHC-LP, EAP Counselor