Children’s Well-Being After Three Months of COVID-19

Part 2: How can parents help their children through this time?

Posted Jun 11, 2020

Parents are wondering how to support their children’s emotions while also maintaining family rules and expectations, and not burning out in the process. Here are some ideas for being present and supportive:

Self-care and Compassion: First, parents can take care of their own emotions—find ways to manage and release stress, stay physically healthy, get sleep, have fun, refresh, stay connected with family and friends, and be kind to themselves. Research on responses to community and natural disasters shows that parents’ mental health and emotional reactions have a significant impact on children’s mental health. Being more emotionally stable will help parents handle their children’s emotions more effectively. Also, be compassionate with yourself—we are all struggling through this challenging time—and trying our best is more than good enough.

Listen: Be available and present to listen to your children’s thoughts and feelings. Check in with your children every day to see how they are doing. Don’t assume you know what your children are thinking or feeling, or what is bothering them if they seem upset. Listening without assumptions is hard, but helpful in supporting our children’s well-being.

Validate: Parents can validate their children’s emotions. Validating means recognizing the veracity of the emotional experience, and this can be hard when parents and children are seeing things differently or arguing. Or it can be hard when children are really upset over something that is really meaningful to them even if the parent thinks it is a small thing in the big picture. Validating means seeing the situation from all sides, and recognizing and acknowledging the truth, or kernel of truth, in both sides. Think about talking about these situations as “both, and” as opposed to “yes, but.”

Parents can also try to find the calmness and patience to ride the waves of their children’s emotions –recognizing that negative emotions are likely rising a falling over the days or even within a day. Here is where mindfulness practices can help, and there are many useful resources online for trying out some mindfulness practices.

Balancing Structure With Autonomy: Parents report feeling like nags, constantly complaining about the house being a mess, the dishes in the sink, the amount of time children are spending on devices and online, etc. We are questioning whether to stand our ground on family rules, pick our battles and let things slide a little, or whether to surrender altogether. Some things that can help include creating predictable routines, focusing on what matters most to your family, and focusing on healthy behaviors.

Routines: Have some routines in the day to create predictability and a daily rhythm. Create a daily schedule that is both structured and flexible. Set up a block of time for work or school work to get done, preferably early in the day to mark the “start” of the day. Have a block of time that is for healthy and helpful activities, as I describe below. In the evening have face-to-face, device-free time like family dinner or family meeting or game time. Within these blocks of time, family members can have some flexibility around getting things done, but by structuring the day in this way, we reduce conflict around when things will get done, and by marking the beginning and end of each day, we support our natural daily rhythms.

Healthful Activities: We are all spending a lot of time on devices and online for work and school and social connections, so build in some time every day that is offline. We can do that by requiring that everyone in the house do some healthful activities after their work is done. These can include about 15-30 minutes each doing something creative (writing, playing an instrument, listing to music, dancing, painting, drawing, etc.), doing something physically active, and being outside for a few minutes. We can also ask that our children walk through the house and pick up their things. We can require that they do these things before they are allowed back on a device/online, and if they do these things, we know they are doing healthful things each day. That way we can worry less about how much time they are spending on devices/online. So rather than try to restrict electronics time, focus on supporting healthy activities.

Focus on Your Families’ Values: We are around each other so much that we see so many more “transgressions”—big and small violations of family rules or expectations. Families are feeling worn out by trying to maintain consistency around enforcing family rules. Try focusing on what matters most to your family—the big things like respect and safety—and be consistent about those rules. It’s OK to let other expectations slide a little to give everyone some emotional space.

Are there things to watch for that might indicate more serious mental health issues?

The key is to look for changes from before when your child was functioning well, and for emotions and behaviors that are interfering with other aspects of your child’s life. Keep an eye out for more intense and more frequent emotional breakdowns, more isolation or withdrawal, children who are avoiding or not doing any of the things they enjoy, or not finding enjoyment out of the things they usually enjoy. Check in regularly and be willing and open to conversations about feelings. We are all having emotional ups and downs, but if your child is experiencing depression, anxiety, irritability, or withdrawal that is interfering with everyday activities and that are present almost every day for a couple of weeks, it is recommended that you consult with your pediatrician or a psychologist.

The children and youth who are more vulnerable to developing mental health concerns are those who were already struggling with emotional, social or behavioral concerns before COVID-19, those whose families are experiencing disruption due to employment, income, food or housing insecurity, other significant stress, conflict or violence. We can all be looking out for children we know who might be struggling.

As the quarantine goes on, is there any reason to expect that children’s behavior might change? 

Immediately after stay-home orders were put in place, people were seeing an increase in anxiety, depression, and stress in everyone, parents and children. Soon afterward, we saw decreases in those as people were getting used to a new normal. However, as these social distancing and stay-home measures are prolonged, children and parents might become increasingly demoralized—the original thought was that this might be just a few weeks, and with an end in sight, it was easier to cope.

But as we go along, people’s energy for dealing with this is going to wear down and distress about the uncertain months ahead will increase feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger. As time goes on, we might see more irritability, demoralization and defiance in our children. There may be more anxiety and problems concentrating.

The impact of COVID-19 on children’s mental health will be disproportionate for families who are experiencing significant stress related to work and income loss or uncertainty, food, and housing insecurity, especially when the stress leads to more family conflict, parent mental health, alcohol or substance use problems, emotional or physical abuse. If your family is struggling with these or if you know a family who is, you can reach out for help at the National Parent Helpline Phone: 55.4APARENT (855.427.2736) for parents and caregivers needing emotional support and links to resources.

Parents will want to find ways to take care of themselves to be able to go the long haul. Think of this more as a marathon than a sprint, and find ways to build our own resilience, as well as our children’s.

Check Psychology Today’s directory of therapists for a professional near you.