Children’s Well-Being in Month 3 of COVID-19

Part 1: How are children doing emotionally?

Posted Jun 10, 2020

As we are approaching three months of living with social distancing and stay home orders, families are concerned about many things. National surveys show that families continue to be worried about contracting the virus, a second wave of infection, the health and safety of their children, older family members, family members that are essential workers, etc. Parents are also worried about their children’s mental health — and their own.

Parents are reporting that 24/7 parenting is hard and tiring, that the context in which it is happening is stressful, and there is so much uncertainty about how the next few months will look. For some families (or for all families some of the time), the time at home might mean more conflict and emotional challenges. On the other hand, there is also a sense of safety with being able to stay home, and there is a sense of appreciation for time with family, especially if we are able to build in quality and fun time with our children.

And in the last couple of weeks, we have watched the news of the deaths of Black individuals, in particular at the hands of the police, that have led almost two weeks of protests aimed at confronting institutionalized and systemic racism in our country. These events have left adults and children alike feeling heavy hearts, grief, anger, and anxiety.

As parenting in the COVID-19 context will be going on for a few more months, and parents are worrying about their children’s emotional well-being, there are several questions that arise from parents and communities supporting parents:

What are parents and children are experiencing emotionally?

There is no typical or single emotional response. Most of us are experiencing many different emotions, with some days being hard and some being fine. Most people are feeling a sense of loss or grief, missing out on the lifestyle we are used to and on participating in the activities we enjoy.

For some children, their sports or music or dance lessons are their passions, and they are having to adapt to doing those things in isolation or not at all. Many families are missing the opportunity to celebrate major events, like weddings, graduations, or milestone birthdays. These missed activities and celebrations can lead to feeling depressed, sad, or demoralized.

There can also be more eruptions of frustration and anger given we have fewer outlets for our stress and distress. Many people are still feeling anxious about family members getting sick, and there can be a lot of anxiety that stems from the uncertainty of the coming months. People might be hypervigilant when they go out, feeling stress with trying to maintain social distancing and other safety measures. Many people are reporting that they are having trouble sleeping, or some teens have basically become nocturnal; and these disrupted sleep patterns can exacerbate emotional challenges.

We know that there are differences in how children respond to stressful experiences rooted in children’s temperament and in their coping. So there won’t be a typical response. Rather, there will be a range of responses:

  • Children who tend to be more worried or anxious in general might display more anxiety about getting sick or family members getting sick; they may try to avoid going out or be more withdrawn. These children might be particularly bothered by the uncertainty of the next few months.
  • Children who were already easily frustrated or quick to anger are likely to be more irritable, arguing more, and maybe even more prone to withdrawing to avoid conflict with family members.
  • Children who are more social might be more adversely affected by not getting to be with friends — they might be more irritable or moody, and they might need more support around finding creative ways to connect with friends.
  • However, some children might not be adversely affected. Some children might feel relief from social pressures and socially bullying. Even if a child is not being bullied, he or she might experience distress from knowing other children are. Also, children who are more introverted might find joy in solitary activities, and might be less negatively affected by stay home orders. However, it might be important to encourage these children to connect with at least one or two good friends, to stay socially engaged.

How do children deal with their emotions?

This is different for each child, as well. Some children will keep their worries and frustration inside, maybe because they think they are the only ones feeling that way, or maybe because they don’t want to burden their parents. Other children will be more open about how they are feeling. And some children might not even realize they are worried or anxious or frustrated, and might let out their feelings by being moody or irritable or angry in situations when it doesn’t seem warranted.

We also see differences in how children cope. Children who tend to do better in stressful situations can identify the less negative or positive aspects of their experiences, while also acknowledging the negative aspects. They can define their problems and come up with ideas for solving their problems or for changing their thoughts or feelings in response to the situation.

Some children will focus on the negative aspects of their experiences, or they might focus on their problems without generating ideas for addressing the problems. These children are more likely to grow more anxious, depressed and distressed as time goes on. Parents can help offer options or suggestions for positive ways of dealing with their stress and emotions, and help their children see the aspects of the situation that are tolerable or positive. The challenge for parents is to do this while still validating and accepting their children’s experiences and feelings.

Parents also can open the opportunity for talking about worries and frustration, asking questions and checking in with their children regularly. Open the door by inviting your children to talk with you whenever they want, or by sharing how you and others are feeling. But don’t push the conversation or try to force children to talk; just be available to listen when they are ready.

How is this different for children at different ages?

There are challenges as well as resources at every age. Younger children might appreciate the opportunity to spend more time with their parent or parents. But they might not understand how everyone can be home and not playing with them all the time. Younger children’s will most likely need more of their parents’ time, and this can be particularly challenging for parents. Young children also will miss their friends, and will need more support and creativity around using technology for “playdates” or chats with friends.

Pre-teens and teens might already be used to using technology to stay connected, but social media and instant chat options are usually supplements to their in-person connections and conversations. For pre-teens and teens, connections with friends are becoming of equal or greater importance as connections with family, so they will be more negatively affected by not being able to be with their friends, and this can create more tension and arguments between youth and parents. They might need support around having longer conversations using web-conferencing or Facetime, and maybe some support around safely connecting in person while observing social-distancing.

Teens and parents spending so much more time together can also be challenging as teens are trying to be increasingly independent, and parents are trying to get them to spend time with family, pitch in and stick with family rules. So there might be more conflict around being “good citizens” in our homes.

Pre-teens and teens may also be more aware and more affected by the uncertainty of the next few months. They are wondering how long this will go on? What will summer be like if they can’t get together with friends? What will school be like in the fall? Will teens graduating from middle-school be starting high school in person? Will colleges be on line? For others who are starting to look for jobs, this is a particularly stressful time as unemployment rates soar. We are likely to see anxiety and depression in youth and young adults increase while the coronavirus affects their envisioned future.

See Part 2 of "Children’s Well-Being in Month 3 of COVID-19" for more on how parents can help their children through this time.