When COVID-19 first came into our lives, most of us focused on immediate physical concerns: How do I stay safe, and how do I keep my family safe?
Months into this crisis, many parents now have an additional worry: the pandemic’s long-term effects on the mental health of children and teens.
If you’ve seen your child struggling to adjust, you’re not alone. In a recent Gallup poll, almost 30 percent of parents said their child’s mental health is suffering. And some experts believe that children may be developing post-traumatic stress.
“We can’t underestimate the negative impact that many months of lack of structure and social stimulation has had on children,” says Jonathan Stevens, MD, MPH, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Menninger Clinic in Houston.
What’s more, until there’s a widely available vaccine, it’s possible that we may continue to experience disruptions to daily life in the months ahead. That’s why the sooner we help our children navigate this new, unpredictable normal, the better it will be for their mental health now and in the future, Dr. Stevens says.
Try these strategies to help your child get through the COVID-19 pandemic and on track toward better mental health.
1. Identify Your Child’s Underlying Stressors
Kids and teens are facing many stressors during this pandemic. Some are experiencing the mental health consequences of social isolation due to remote learning. Those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or learning disabilities may struggle especially with remote or interrupted learning.
A parent’s work can also have a surprising effect on kids and teens. If you are an essential worker or can’t work from home, your child may worry that you’ll get sick. Or if you now work from home but are helping your child navigate remote learning, that can cause stress for both of you.
Before you can help your child, you need to understand what stressors they are experiencing, Dr. Stevens explains.
2. Model Healthy Coping Skills
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to manage your own anxiety during these stressful times. Children can sense their parent’s anxiety and fears, Dr. Stevens notes. “We can’t expect kids—let alone kids with mental health issues—to manage a parent’s feelings.”
Think of it this way: The healthier you are, the better you’ll be able to help your child. If you are having a hard time coping with stress, check in with your primary care doctor or a mental health clinician.
3. Create a Daily Structure
When lockdowns first started, schedules went out the door as many of us tried to make it through virtual school and work. But that kind of unpredictability can lead to or worsen anxiety.
To take back control, implement and maintain a regular daily routine. “Structure binds anxiety—it creates a cadence to the day,” Dr. Stevens says. “Knowing what’s going to happen next can alleviate anxiety.”
Stick to a schedule for waking up, eating meals, and going to bed. Also plan for downtime and activities to do together as a family.
Be clear with what you expect of your child in terms of schoolwork and household responsibilities. You can relax the rules a bit on the weekends but aim to be consistent on weekdays.
4. Reassess Learning Plans
If your child has an individualized education program (IEP), you may need to revisit it. IEPs are generally built for the in-person school environment, not for the home. Your child may require extra tutoring or other support.
Also, if your child has experienced new or worsening mental health challenges, such as anxiety or depression, since the start of the pandemic, they may need different resources now, Dr. Stevens notes. “Schools aren’t going to know unless you share that information.”
5. Encourage Daily Physical Activity
Physical activity is an important part of mental health for any child. For children with ADHD in particular, physical activity can help with focus, Dr. Stevens recommends.
Whether your child is back in school or learning remotely, there’s a good chance they’re not getting enough movement these days. Build time into daily schedules for physical activity, and follow COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
6. Engage Kids and Teens in Age-Appropriate Discussions
COVID-19 isn’t the only trauma children are experiencing these days. They may also be picking up on societal, political, or economic tensions from the news or your community, Dr. Stevens explains.
If you don’t provide an educated perspective on what is happening, kids and teens may get their answers from somewhere else. Often, that means from their peers or on social media, and that can fuel their worries.
“It’s important to initiate those conversations and to show your child it’s OK to talk about anything,” Dr. Stevens says.
But do more listening than talking. “Open the door to conversation, realizing your child might not walk through that door that day, but maybe in the weeks to come,” he adds. This is especially important for adolescents.
Need help starting a conversation? Check out our guide for parents and teens on how to talk about mental health.
7. Create Goals
For kids and teens, schoolyears are marked by milestones: starting a new grade, celebrating prom, moving into college. Missed or altered milestones can leave parents and children of all ages with a sense of grief.
While you can’t gain back those milestones, creating new goals can help children reshape their school experience, Dr. Stevens recommends. “Having a goal for next year—something to shoot for and work towards—is helpful.”
8. Set Up Realistic Expectations
Be proactive, not reactive. Even with a vaccine, it may be a while before life fully returns to normal.
“Kids might still miss those milestones again,” Dr. Stevens cautions. “Being realistic about the time frame can help prevent or cope with those letdowns.”
For young children especially, providing some predictability can help them feel more in control of their situation. Keep them in the loop over safety protocols, so they aren’t surprised or overwhelmed. For example, explain what would happen if someone in their school tests positive for COVID-19. Don’t wait until something happens, which can increase feelings of helplessness.
With holidays around the corner, it’s important to set up realistic expectations about gatherings. “Getting ahead of that now will help you and your family adjust,” Dr. Stevens notes.
9. Get Help for New or Worsening Mental Health Symptoms
Most important of all, seek help if you notice any changes in how your child is behaving or feeling. If you’re worried about in-person appointments, telemedicine for mental health is a great option, Dr. Stevens says.
If your child’s mental health clinician recommends medication, you may want to consider pharmacogenetic (PGx) testing. Genomind® Professional PGx Express™, for example, looks at 24 genes related to mental health treatment. It provides guidance across 10+ mental health conditions and 130+ medications to help clinicians determine:
- Which medications will likely be the most effective
- Which medications may have side effects
- How you metabolize medications for personalized dosing guidance
The Genomind test, which he uses with his patients, is beneficial for children and teens at all stages of mental health treatment, Dr. Stevens says.
Early in treatment, the Genomind test is good for families who are concerned about medication side effects, Dr. Stevens explains. Parents want clinicians to have the best information available before they write a prescription for mental health medication for their child.
The Genomind test is also helpful for children who take mental health medication but are still experiencing symptoms that get in the way of daily life, Dr. Stevens says. The results can give clinicians information so they can make decisions about how to augment treatment or choose a different medication.
Recovering After Hospitalization
Children with mental health conditions that are difficult to treat or that require hospitalization may also benefit from the Genomind test. “These children are really looking for a major change in the trajectory of their care,” Dr. Stevens says.
Kids and teens in this group will also need extra support. Check out this guide for helping your child resume school after a mental health crisis.
Does Your Medication Work for You?
Get a lifetime of smarter mental health treatment guidance. Genomind’s leading pharmacogenetic test was designed to help your clinician personalize your treatment plan based on your genetic profile.