How COVID-19 Stress And Social Distancing Impacts Kids' Mental Health

The there are major concerns about the impact of the pandemic on a child's mental health and well-being.
Posted at 12:21 PM, Mar 26, 2020

We know from some limited studies how COVID-19 impacts childrens' physical health. One large study of more than 2,000 children with COVID-19 infections reported to China's Centers for Disease Control found that the physical effects were mild: 90% did not have trouble breathing or need oxygen or intensive care; 4.4% were asymptomatic; and only one child died.

That's good news. But there are major concerns about the impact of the pandemic on a child’s mental health and well-being. 

"Families are just under incredible both psychosocial and financial stress right now because of the COVID-19 epidemic," said Dr. Charlene Wong, an adolescent pediatrician and health services researcher at Duke University. "Now you've got kids who are at home all day because they're not going to school. They're not going to day care. And in those situations, we are anticipating that we will see rates of child abuse and neglect rise."

Even in situations where neglect and abuse is not an issue, social distancing from COVID-19 makes for stressful times for parents with kids at home. Andrea DeLira lives in Texas with her four children ages 4-13. She told Newsy even with her husband working from home, it’s been hard to navigate at times.

"It's been very, very stressful. When he was working home two days a week, the kids were in school except for Zoe, because she's 4. And it was hard enough just to keep her away from him when he's making calls to customers," DeLira told Newsy. "And that was definitely a huge struggle. Now I'm not only trying to keep her away but everybody else away from him and quiet, and everybody's stir crazy."

Or take James Cummings, also a parent of four.

"We have four really smart kids. And I don't want to see them missing, especially in education. So it really stresses me out that they're getting pushed. I'm really worried, especially for our middle school student who will be an eighth-grader next year, that he's really ready," he said.

Child and adolescent mental health experts agree there is a lot we know about anxiety and depression in kids that can help parents navigate through this time of uncertainty. Anxiety and depression were already rising in the U.S. According to the CDC, last year 6.3 million children aged 3-17 years were diagnosed with anxiety or depression.

"There may or may not be normal, you know, quote-unquote, teenage conflict there. Certainly proximity of stuck home with your family is going to, you know, there's going to be a family conflict that people need to navigate. And for that reason, if it gets really intense, you know, again, reach out to a family therapist for that family to navigate. A lot of people are encountering that," Allison Johnsen, a licensed clinical counselor and behavioral health manager at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, told Newsy.

So what can parents do? Experts told Newsy having a family schedule that includes physical activity can help mental health immensely. Parents should look for warning signs like excessive self-isolation or changes in eating habits, often telltale signs of depression or anxiety. Also, limit their kids' exposure to news and also make sure they are not passing on their stress to their children.

"The most important thing for parents is to seek help themselves if they are feeling like they have been too overwhelmed with stress, be it emotional stress, economic stress, and that they reach out for help so that they can ensure that their health is good enough to care for their children," Wong said. "Children are just so dependent on the overall well-being of their caregivers, parents, grandparents, whoever it is that's watching them right now. And we know that it's an incredible time of stress for the whole family unit. And so the No. 1 piece of advice I would have is if parents are feeling stressed, ... please reach out to your networks, to your health care providers, to your social service providers."

For adolescents, mental health experts advise it's OK to feel whatever emotions they're feeling. Having face-to-face or audio contact — think TikTok, good, texting, not so much. It's important too, to mentally remind oneself, regardless of age, while we don't know when, much of the stress of COVID-19 will pass.