Why Covid-19 Affects Kids’ Mental Health — and How You Can Help

Why Covid-19 Affects Kids’ Mental Health — and How You Can Help

While adults have been the hardest hit by Covid-19 infections, children of all ages remain vulnerable to the pandemic’s many social consequences. In Illinois, the recent uptick in newly diagnosed cases has families buckling down for a long winter without outdoor activities and traditional holiday gatherings, leaving children particularly at risk to the adverse effects of isolation.

Here, Matthew Davis, MD, chair of the Department of Pediatrics, and John Walkup, MD, chair of the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, explain the potential mental health consequences of Covid-19 for children and offer ways for parents to help develop healthy coping skills for kids at home.

Why your child may be struggling

Families across the U.S. are far more likely to report worsening behavioral health than worsening physical health during the pandemic, according to research conducted by Davis at Lurie Children’s and his colleagues at other institutions.

This trend is particularly concerning in Illinois, where the need for mental health services outweighs the number of providers qualified to meet demands. Of the 20% of children who have a mental health problem in Illinois, only about half receive any treatment, according to Walkup. Children with unaddressed mental health problems are at particular risk during this time.

The rise in behavioral and mental healthcare needs for kids during the pandemic can be attributed to numerous causes. Stay-at-home orders have put kids in close proximity to their caretakers, at times leading to more interpersonal conflict and prompting worries about restricted opportunities for kids to have healthy social interactions. Additionally, the shift to e-learning has raised concerns about children falling behind academically, especially those with special learning and health needs.

Because the virus disproportionately affects people of color in the U.S., it’s important to note that Black and Latino children are potentially more affected by the emotional impacts of grief and loss related to deaths of family members from Covid-19, Davis says. A sample of over 4,200 families whose children received healthcare at Lurie Children’s showed that Black and Latino families were more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic white families to know someone who has had Covid-19 infection.

What parents can do

Acknowledging the elevated levels of stress we currently experience plays a key role in developing healthy coping mechanisms that can help the entire family, Walkup says. “We are living in a very challenging time, and we feel we are personally at risk, along with our families. It’s in that context that we’re trying to ‘keep our heads’ and support each other.”

While it’s normal for kids and parents to feel demoralized, creating a plan for each day provides the consistency and predictability to combat fear and worry.

Remember the five Cs. “When I think about resiliency, it’s the ability to bounce back from trouble. I think about the five Cs: Commit to staying engaged; Control as much as you can through work and collaboration with others; and Challenge yourself to learn and grow from adversity,” Walkup says. “As children become more Competent with handling challenges, you will see their Confidence grow.”

Prioritize routines. For kids, having a predictable life experience is important. Planning consistently portioned meals around certain times and having fixed bedtimes are two ways to address a breakdown in positive eating and sleeping habits.

Keep lists. Making lists is a good way to stay focused. No matter how small the tasks, a list can help kids get back in action when motivation runs low. “Make a ‘leisure list’ — a list of fun activities including physical activities and Covid-acceptable athletic activities,” Walkup suggests. “You can turn to these lists when there’s free time as a way to combat boredom and deflect a child from defaulting to screens.”

Maintain checkups and vaccinations. As a result of heightened precautions during the pandemic, many families postponed or skipped routine child health checkups and vaccinations. However, it remains as crucial as ever for children and adolescents to have their routine screenings and immunizations, Davis says. These routine checkups should include screenings for the behavioral health and wellbeing of children and adolescents.

The Lurie Children’s clinical teams are taking the appropriate precautions to minimize the risk of spread of Covid-19. To make an appointment for your child at Lurie Children’s, please visit Lurie’s website.

Ask for help. If your child struggles for a prolonged period of time, you may wish to set a healthy example by seeking outside support. Lurie Children’s offers helpful Covid-19 resources for families and operates a Covid-19 call center (312-227-4118) staffed by nurses, social workers, and child life specialists who can help parents and caregivers with community referrals and resources. You may also visit the Lurie Children’s Center for Childhood Resilience website for additional resources regarding schooling, relationships, self-care, and more.

Lurie Children’s is the top-ranked pediatric hospital in Illinois.