COVID-19's impact on children's mental health

COVID-19's impact on children's mental health

The pandemic has affected everyone, beyond the COVID-19 disease itself. Now, more than ever, the pandemic has brought mental health front and center drawing attention to the need for resources and intervention for all ages.

Children have also been exposed to the pandemic’s ubiquitous stress, either directly or via their parents’ behaviors in the home environment.

Dr. Andres Ramos, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, discusses what parents and other caregivers need to know about children’s mental health—as we all continue to navigate the pandemic’s fallout.

**To listen to an in-depth conversation on this topic with Dr. Andres Ramos, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, follow this link:

Contributing Factors to Psychopathology in Children

“This is a unique situation, where we have a number of stressors that have come together and created this perfect storm. We know that each of those stressors can lead to psychopathology in children and adolescents,” states Dr. Ramos.

Contributing factors include economic recession, decreased income and interruption of education with many schools moving to a virtual platform. The social isolation of mandated stay-at-home orders has also been difficult for children and parents.

“Data suggest social isolation can lead to things like depression and anxiety; even having a long-lasting effect. We have fear of death, fear of illness, disruption of everyday activities. Again, each of these items in and of itself has been linked to psychopathology in children and adolescents. So, to have all of these things coalesced together is quite concerning,” explains Dr. Ramos.

Unfortunately, little research matches the exact circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it impacts mental health. “We can only extrapolate what we know about disasters that have happened across the world and certainly in this country, like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11,” adds Dr. Ramos.

Warning Signs to Watch For

While parent involvement is critical, Dr. Ramos warns that some clues aren’t readily apparent. He encourages parents or other caregivers to pay close attention to any change from a child’s baseline. For example, a kid who is usually introverted and is rarely in trouble may start to act out or become openly defiant.

“That should spark a level of concern. Other kids may move from their outgoing personality to be more isolative. Maybe grades are dropping. Maybe they're less friendly or more irritable, having more interpersonal strains or fighting more with siblings. Any change from baseline should raise a level of concern and the pediatrician should be notified,” cautions Dr. Ramos.

Key Strategies for Parents

Strategies parents can use to help their children navigate this uncertain time are not exclusive to the pandemic but are applicable to any situation that causes significant disruption in a child’s life. Dr. Ramos offers the following suggestions:

  • Maintain a daily structure as much as possible. Routine can be reassuring, and it give kids a sense of control.
  • Communicate in a way that is developmentally appropriate. Younger kids need a softer approach than,teens. Most parents know their children and know what they can and can't handle as far as information.
  • Be honest and transparent, but be careful not to overshare.
  • Limit news/media exposure. Information is empowering, but too much can be overwhelming and even frightening.

“It's a combination of keeping things steady. A fair amount of routine, support and keeping the family functioning as it was functioning prior to the pandemic, if that's at all possible. And, feeding a good amount of information that empowers but does not scare the child.”

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