What lasting impact will this year have on children’s mental health?
Parents, teachers, school leaders, private pre-schools, and government officials are all scrambling right now to sort out what school will look like this fall. By now we’ve heard that some schools across the US have decided to go online-only, others are fully open and others are choosing a hybrid model of the two. It’s not easy to weigh the pros and cons of each decision. Some families are struggling with difficult choices to make, while others are struggling with the fact that they don’t have much choice in the matter. Our hearts go out to everyone who’s in the tough situation of navigating this school year.
One of the most common questions we hear from parents is ‘What lasting impact will this year have on my children’s mental health?’
The short answer: We don’t know yet.
There are so many variables that go into the impact of a certain situation on a child. There is not much research yet on the broader impact of a global pandemic on children’s mental health.
That said, experts DO know quite a bit about children’s needs and factors that help them get through tough times. We have some information that may be helpful to you as you and your family look for ways to support each other through life’s challenges right now. We know that there are some effective things that can be done to support children through this time.
Below is a list of some of the challenges and some ideas of how to support children through these times:
Exposure to stress in the family and community
Many of us are experiencing high levels of stress. We know that when parents experience stress, children feel it too. Children are biologically wired to be attuned to the emotional state of their caregivers. We can’t fake it- our children know. Stress in the family and community can cause children to feel more anxious or worried. These anxious or worried feelings can impact their thoughts and behaviors as well. Chronic stress can have an impact on children’s mental health. So, what can we do about this potential risk factor?
Own your Feelings: Say to your child, “I want you to know that mommy has been feeling stressed, all people feel stressed sometimes, I can handle my big feelings and I have other grown-ups to help me when I need it. I want you to know it’s not your fault that I’m stressed and you don’t have to worry about me.” Children will feel your stress even if you don’t say anything so it’s best to bring it up. Young children often automatically believe that it’s about them so you can help correct this thinking by stating this clearly.
Engage in self–care: Anything you do to take care of yourself and reduce your stress will support your child’s mental health. Don’t forget this; your kids need you to take that extra 20-minute walk, even if they are begging you to stay home and play with them. It will be best for everyone if you can find ways to unwind.
Limit exposure to news sources: It’s probably pretty accurate to assume your children hear everything you turn on and everything you say. Think of the news as adult programming. Children don’t have the cognitive abilities or world knowledge to process information from the news and put it into context. If you need to keep your children informed on world events, do so in an age-appropriate manner. This will limit their exposure to vicarious trauma.
Support resilience building: Children can learn to be more resilient. Messages around growth mindset versus fixed mindset (how can I help to fix it versus this is the way it is), as well as learning ways to practice stress reduction at home, can all help children reduce stress.
Lack of predictability in their environments
Have you experienced any changes to your life lately? Most of us can respond to that question with a resounding ‘YES’! Children have been feeling all the changes in their lives too. Children need structure, routine and consistency in their lives to feel safe and secure. Changes are okay sometimes, but too many can lead to feelings of insecurity. We know a lack of predictability can impact children. Children are likely experiencing higher levels of stress due to environmental changes around them.
Offer predictability where you can: You may find your children holding on tighter to the routines and rules you have. We don’t have control over the bigger pandemic, but you may have some influence, say, over when you serve dinner, or when bedtime is. Try to pick a routine and stick to it. If you have to change up the routine- that’s fine, but then find that consistency again. Bedtime routines and daily schedules are a great way for children to find their new normal again.
Reinforce positive messages of safety and security: Remind your children of the things they have that will never change. Remind your child that you will always love them and support them no matter what.
Practice new routines: If you have kiddos attending online school, or even starting kindergarten online, everything might feel quite foreign this fall. Try some practice school days. Take turns being the teacher and the students, practice logging on and off the computer, and practice asking for help from the teacher if you are confused. Kids learn as they play.
Experiences of grief and loss
Some children may experience the death of a loved one, while other children may be experiencing loss around environmental changes; like not being able to go back to school or seeing family and friends. Whatever type of loss a child may be experiencing, grief will likely accompany it. Grief is a natural human reaction to a loss. There are many ways to support children with grief and loss.
Offer space for emotions: Grief can show up in all different sorts of ways. Children may need to cry, play or laugh. They may express grief through acting-out behaviors. Allow space for your little one to express their emotions while setting necessary boundaries with behaviors.
Recognize your child’s perspective: One of the harder things about grief is when people treat you like your pain isn’t real or justified. When children show you their feelings about something don’t try to talk them out of it. Children are highly sensitive and amazingly attuned to their environments. Even if it seems small or insignificant to you, it’s real to them - believe and tune into them.
Lack of access to education, social supports, and community resources
One of the really hard things right now is that children who need certain supports or services are unable to access them right now. Parents are, understandably, worried about how this lack of support will impact their child. We know that early intervention for all sorts of issues can be so important, so what can parents do as these important supports and services change.
Reach out: Many services have shifted their routines to online and alternative care. Care providers of all types have worked over the past several months to find ways to adapt to the rules and standards of care in their areas. If you tried back in March to get services, and couldn’t, try again. Many community supports and additional services now have adapted to the times.
Advocate for your child: If your child is accessing school or another service, but needs more support than they are getting you should speak up. In many states, there are laws in place to protect children’s rights to adequate educational support. There may be agencies or community organizations that can help you advocate for your child if they aren’t getting what they need. If you need permission to speak up and advocate for your little one - here it is!
Seek additional supports: If you feel your child isn’t getting something they need, seek out creative ways to get more support. If you are worried your child isn’t getting enough physical activity during the day, consider new and creative ways to get your kiddo out and about. Many new supports are available online, and in the community using social distancing protocols. Check out our Slumberkins School for free resources that both teachers and parents can use to support children’s social and emotional development.
Now let’s say you’ve tried all the things on the list that you can, and you are still worried about your child’s well-being. Yes, we believe you. This is a really hard time, and even with our best attempts to mitigate the challenges of the time, we won’t be able to shelter our children from everything. There may be things that occur during these times that are really hard, scary, upsetting or even harmful to children. We won’t get through it perfectly but we are all doing our best. Remember that even after COVID-19 passes, we will have opportunities to heal, recover, and grow. So, what can we tell ourselves when we are still left with fear about the outcomes for our children? Here are some things we remind ourselves when things feel especially rough...
There is help out there. It will be there for us when we can get to it.
Humans are resilient. We know how to heal.
We are not alone. We may be going through a collective trauma, but when this is over, we can go through collective healing. Together.
What do you say to yourself when things get tough? We would love to hear from you about the ways you have found to support your child and family’s mental health during these times in the comments section below.