Pandemic Aftershocks: Overcoming the Mental Health Impacts of COVID-19 for Young Children

It’s true that children are resilient, but that doesn’t mean they are invincible.

As parents, we love our children and want the best for them, but we aren’t superhuman. Allow a professional to help them explore some of their feelings about COVID-19.

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Please note, the information in this post is not a replacement for personal medical advice.
By Miranda Peyton, LMSW, MT-BC

The COVID-19 pandemic was and has been taxing on all of us. While we have all been hit by it in different ways, we have all been hit in some way. This includes young children, who may be confused and are carrying stress that is less obvious than ours. For example, when kids are experiencing stress and other mental health challenges, they may exhibit behavioral issues, hyperactivity, nightmares, outbursts, and difficulty separating from their parents.

The difficult part of identifying the signs and symptoms of mental health issues in kids is that a lot of these behaviors are to be expected in kids – to some extent. The main difference between normal ups and downs of children is the amount of time it is happening. If it’s going on for a longer period of time than you would expect, then it might be a sign of an underlying issue, whether it’s mental or physical.

COVID Related Changes

In general, young children rely on their parents far more. They demand more attention, and in some cases they simply want their parents to be next to them. On the other hand, this is a time in their life where they are getting used to routines, beginning to go to school, learning social skills, getting comfortable spending more time away from their parents. They may even be engaging in activities like sports or music. However, with COVID-19 they experienced an abrupt change in how they do these things as a result of school closures, event cancellations, and social distancing. While these safety measures had an important purpose, that doesn’t mean they did not come without consequences. Including a decline in mental health.

It’s true that children are resilient, but that doesn’t mean they are invincible. Parents have likely seen some effects already, and there may be more as we continue to transition back to what was once “normal”.

“Back to School, Back to School”

Teachers and parents did an outstanding job adjusting to new education mediums. Online schooling is not always easy and leaves a lot to be desired in terms of bonding, hands on learning, and collaboration.

However, we are now back to a place where schools have reopened, children are attending classes in person, and activities are commencing. For a lot of kids, this is ideal. Some are excited to be back with friends and some are excited to have access to more resources and help from teachers. However, a lot of children might not want to go back. Just as social children may have struggled with isolation, there are some children who struggle with socialization and thrive at home. COVID-19 brought a lot of change. It is important to remember that change is often uncomfortable and destabilizing. Although we are returning to a former version of “normal”, it still requires change to get there.

Disenfranchised Grief

Despite limitations, the world kept turning. Children might be experiencing disenfranchised grief. Maybe they did not get to have a birthday party this year, or the annual family vacation got cancelled. While these are saddening to adults, it may feel like an outright loss for kiddos. And that’s okay. We can all grieve things that are not considered “traditional losses”.

Fear About COVID

Another thing to keep in mind is that your children might be afraid. Just like adults, children are aware that COVID-19 leads to sickness, which can lead to death. For some, maybe it already has. Losing loved ones, witnessing illness, or experiencing the coronavirus firsthand are all things that can create fear in children moving forward. Maybe they will hesitate to stop wearing a mask, or maybe they are afraid to hug family members because they want them to say healthy.

On the other hand, maybe their fear goes the other way. Maybe children are afraid of another pandemic happening and going through all of this again. An event like this may have traumatic effects on all of us, including kids.

What Can Parents Do?

While it can be difficult to predict how your child might react to the various transitions and changes, it is best to be prepared. Here are a few things parents and guardians can do to support their kids as they navigate all things COVID-19.

Talk about it

Try to talk to your child about their feelings. Keep in mind that young children don’t have the vocabulary and understanding of emotions to communicate the same way that we do. So, bring it down to their level. Speak simply and clearly and allow them to finish out their thoughts. Avoid interrupting them when they are expressing their thoughts. It might prevent them from trying in the future. The important part is to listen and validate their feelings. Perhaps your child may not communicate anything specific to you. Providing intentional individual attention to what they want to do with you could be an impactful way to connect and nurture their needs.  You could also incorporate art projects as a way to increase emotional expression without having to say anything.

Support social connections

During the pandemic, many children did not get to practice their social skills the same way as they typically would. Many children did not get to practice their social skills in the same way they typically would have.  Due to the pandemic and increase of isolation, some children may need to practice their social skills even more. Find ways to keep your child connected to their peers, whether through an online video chat or a small gathering with their friends.

Recognize stress and fear

Another part of this is to talk openly about these feelings. Being scared and feeling worried or confused are natural human responses. Recognize those things and help them to label those feelings. This will help them communicate about them better and show them that these feelings are okay to have. By normalizing the feelings, you can also normalize healthy coping strategies for them.

Maintain some structure

Even as things transition and change, try to maintain some structure within the home. If you always read with them before bed or make their favorite dinner on a certain night, keep doing those things. We can’t control every part of their day, but we can relieve some of their concerns by keeping some piece of their routine intact.

Seek professional help

Schedule an appointment with a children’s therapist. As parents, we love our children and want the best for them, but we aren’t superhuman. Allow a professional to help them explore some of their feelings about COVID-19. Children’s therapists often use Play Therapy techniques, which is another example of communicating at a child’s level. They can’t sit on a couch and say, “Today I am feeling overwhelmed because I didn’t get my art project done on time and Steve didn’t let me play kickball at recess.” Instead, they can play and reveal some of these frustrations through their toys, what their toys are doing, and how the toys are interacting.

Miranda Peyton, LMSW, MT-BC
Miranda Peyton, LMSW, MT-BC
Miranda is a board-certified music therapist, experienced in working with a variety of individuals. Miranda is passionate about helping others identify and reach their goals for mental wellness.
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Miranda Peyton, LMSW, MT-BC
Miranda Peyton, LMSW, MT-BC
Miranda is a board-certified music therapist, experienced in working with a variety of individuals. Miranda is passionate about helping others identify and reach their goals for mental wellness.
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