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Taking care of kids mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a major source of anxiety, stress, frustration, and even panic for some over the past few weeks in Canada. Here are some facts about kids’ mental health and some tips on how to cope with our feelings during this difficult time.

With the spread of COVID-19 dominating the news and social media, it’s hard to get a break from the worrying information that is coming at us: impacts to the economy, the health care system, and the education of our kids, among others. To top it all off, we are working hard at slowing the spread of the virus by limiting our face-to-face interactions with others through quarantine, social distancing, and self-isolation. Humans are designed to be social creatures and so isolation can be lonely, depressing, and frustrating. With all of these factors, it is no wonder that many people are struggling with their mental health - and it’s not just adults. Kids are struggling just as much as we are, but sometimes don’t display the same reactions as adults do.

How might children react to the pandemic?

No two kids will react the same to stress. There is a spectrum of responses, but some of the most common reactions that you may see in the children around you could include:

  • Regressive behaviours: This means that some children may cope with their feelings by returning to an earlier stage of development that they have outgrown. A common example of this is bedwetting or toileting accidents.

  • Neediness, separation anxiety, excessive worrying: The child may refuse to leave your side, become extremely upset if you have to be apart from them, or need constant reassurance.

  • Irritability, anger, “acting out:” Some children may cope with feeling out of control through anger or intentional misbehaviour.

  • Sadness, helplessness/hopelessness, loss of interest in activities: Children may be unable to picture the future (either at all, or feel optimistic about the future), lose interest in things that they used to enjoy, or cry.

  • Substance use: Kids may use substances, like drugs or alcohol, as a way to ‘escape’ scary, overwhelming, or stressful feelings.

  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits: This may simply be the result of not being at school and playing more video games or watching more Netflix, but some children may be engaging in these activities because they are struggling to sleep due to anxiety. 

  • Problems with attention and concentration: Studies show that anxiety “turns off” the areas of the brain that keep kids focused and able to concentrate. If a child is feeling a great deal of anxiety, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to concentrate and pay attention. This could lead to difficulties in trying to keep up with schoolwork at home.

What are some ways to help the children around me cope?

It might be frightening or worrisome to see children struggling with their mental health during the pandemic. Fortunately, there are ways that you can support the children around you to cope.

  • Use technology to interact with loved ones: Just because we can’t be face-to-face with our loved ones right now, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be social! There are lots of ways to do this: FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Facebook Messenger, etc. Interacting with the people we care about can lessen feelings of isolation and loneliness.

  • Create a daily schedule: Try and keep kids’ daily routine as normal as possible. Studies show that routines are important for children who are anxious. Why? Routines are patterns of behaviour. Knowing the pattern of exactly what and when things will happen is comforting to anxious kids - the unknown is a source of stress and worry, and a lot of kids are already worried and stressed as it is! Create a schedule together and set goals for what they want to accomplish each day. Wake up at close to the same time each day, get dressed and engage in personal hygiene, and limit screen time to certain times during the day. Ensure that there is opportunity to spend time together as a family!

  • Take advantage of all of the amazing content that is available: Many online classes or resources are free or discounted right now. There are courses on interesting topics, activities and games, music classes, artistic classes, and more available - you just have to search for them!

  • Talk to your kids: Kids get a lot of information from their peers, and unfortunately, there tends to be a lot of false information that gets passed around. Be sure to give them accurate and truthful information about the virus, how it is spread, and how to keep themselves healthy. The less false information that circulates, the more we can help to avoid outbreaks in our communities. Try to avoid getting information from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., and instead look for reputable and reliable sources, such as the CDC, Northwestern Health Unit, Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, or Public Health Ontario.

  • Model healthy habits, hygiene, and attitudes: We know that children learn a lot by watching those around them. Be a role model for children by: following the advice of public health authorities on things like social distancing and self-isolation/quarantine; engaging in positive coping skills to manage stress and avoiding the use of drugs or alcohol; using good handwashing and personal hygiene techniques to prevent the spread of germs; and expressing and encouraging optimistic and balanced views of the current situation and the future.

  • Get creative: Creative, unstructured play and art are great stress relievers. Allow kids to have time to play and create in whatever way they are interested in. Some ideas include finger/foot painting, drawing/sketching, using modelling clay/Play Doh, colouring, etc. This is a great time to learn a new skill as well. Encourage kids to learn to draw, bead, knit, bake, build something, or sew. There are tutorials on YouTube for almost anything that they might want to learn to do! Learning a new skill can help battle feelings of boredom or stress.

  • Take a social media/technology break: With the constant stream of information that we are receiving from social media and the news, it’s no wonder people are feeling panicked, scared, and stressed. Combat this by scheduling times of the day to unplug from social media and technology. Get outside for a walk, do some colouring, play a board game with the family, or read a book!

Remember, everyone is struggling right now. To get through this, we must do it together by supporting each other, being kind, checking in with our loved ones, following guidelines set out by community and government officials, and taking good care of ourselves.

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