The Importance of Children's Mental Health During COVID

An interview with Beth Cunningham on helping children cope well during COVID.

Posted Nov 21, 2020

Beth Cunningham, used with permission
Source: Beth Cunningham, used with permission

COVID-19 has brought about many dramatic life changes, especially in the lives of children. In this interview, Dr. Beth Cunningham shares insight on how these difficult circumstances may be affecting the mental health of children and how parents can be aware and take charge of best practices to help them thrive.

Dr. Beth Cunningham is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who works at Florissa, a pediatric developmental center for children with behavioral, developmental, social, and emotional needs in Dixon, Illinois. She earned her Doctorate and Master's degrees from Wheaton College and concentrated her graduate studies on child and adolescent development and psychopathology. She completed her doctoral internship at Outreach Community Counseling Center in Carol Stream, Illinois, where she received extensive training in psychological and neuropsychological assessment. She has also received specialized training in providing therapy to survivors of traumatic experiences. Dr. Beth currently provides assessment and treatment of a variety of disorders in childhood and adolescence including depression, anxiety, trauma, learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and autism spectrum disorder.

Jamie Aten: Why is it important to think about the mental health of children and adolescents during COVID-19?

Beth Cunningham: It is important to think about the mental health of children and adolescents especially in this time because one of the things that we are seeing is not only higher levels of anxiety in children but also sadness and depression. It's not just diagnosable mental illness that is increasing, but a wide range of normal emotions happening as a result of different co-experiences, such as the current pandemic that we're in. It’s crucial that we be mindful of this because kids might not yet have skills developed to identify their feelings. They may have many emotions about COVID and all that is happening, but they do not necessarily know how to identify what those are, communicate them with other people, or know how to manage their emotions and cope in healthy ways.

JA: What are some of the issues that might arise from mental health during COVID-19?

BC: Because children do not yet have the skills to identify or cope with their emotions, their feelings manifest themselves in many ways, causing issues to arise. Some of these include, but are not limited to, withdrawal from others, clinging or attachment behaviors, decreased interest in activities, physical ailments, excessively seeking reassurance from others, reluctance to leave home, or increased risk-taking behaviors.

JA: What are some practical applications for supporting kids and teens’ mental health during COVID-19?

BC: In order to help them cope, it is really important to create space for kids to reflect on what is going on and process their experiences. Here are a few practical suggestions in order to do so:

5 steps to create space to listen well to your kids. The first step is to ask open-ended and engaging questions. Once asking those questions, the second step is to reflect on what you hear. Third, make sure to notice their facial expressions and body language. Fourth, normalize and validate the feelings that are shared with you. Finally, respond without judgment. Regardless of what your child might be feeling, it is crucial to respond with acceptance and acknowledgment, letting them know that it is okay to feel the things they feel.

Engage in developmentally appropriate conversations. For a lot of us, we are working with young kids. It is not necessarily appropriate to share information from news articles and social media, etc. with them, even for teenagers. We need to be careful about what they are consuming and hearing because there is information that is potentially not true and beneficial for a child to know.

Model openness and acceptance within difficult conversations. There are as many different perspectives about this pandemic as there are days in the year, if not more. Rather than being judgmental, we need to model openness to our children, helping them know and remember that people are making the best decisions they can, based on the information they have and their personal circumstances. Kids pick up on the judgments we make and how we treat other people. When we treat other people well, being open and respectful to different perspectives, our children see those behaviors as ways that can definitely decrease their own anxiety in the situation and can help them be more open, gracious, and kind to other people.

Encouraging kids to use coping strategies. Coping strategies are tools that help us calm ourselves down and feel better in the midst of big emotions. They do not aim to take away or distance yourself from your emotions but serve as a way for us to get through these difficult times with a sense of steadiness. Some simple strategies include:

  • Relaxation Strategies (eg: deep breathing, praying, coloring, rubbing something soothing, balancing a feather, tightening/relaxing muscles) 
  • High-Energy Strategies (eg: jumping jacks, going for a run, dancing to worship music, squeezing a stress ball, pushing against a wall, popping bubble wrap) 
  • Enjoyable Activities (eg: watching a movie, reading a book, playing a game, participating in a hobby, engaging in Christian fellowship, spending time in nature) 
  • Thinking Strategies (eg: Grounding with 5-4-3-2-1 senses, ID what can/can’t control, journaling/drawing how I feel, Talking to someone, practicing gratitude, applying scripture to situation)

JA: What types of things should parents be considering to be able to offer support to their children and themselves during COVID-19?

BC:  There are so many different factors and decisions that parents are having to make right now, some being whether to send their kids to school in person or how best to provide services for their children and meet their relational needs. These are incredibly hard for every parent to make. Being cognizant of the many different contexts and circumstances going into each decision, we need to work through them on our own as individual families, while simultaneously being respectful, kind, and gracious towards others regardless of the decisions they make because we want to receive the same for the choices we are making for our families and children.