There’s no sugarcoating it: The COVID-19 pandemic has upended children’s lives, including their mental health.
In a survey commissioned earlier this year by Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, 71% of U.S. parents thought the pandemic had taken a toll on the kids’ mental health and 69% believed the pandemic was the worst thing to ever happen in their children’s lives.
Contributing to mental health concerns among American children: As many as 43,000 kids in the U.S. lost a parent to COVID-19 from February 2020 to February 2021.
So, how can you monitor and improve your kids’ mental health as millions of American children return to in-person classes? In the Lurie Children’s Hospital survey, parents explained some of the ways they’ve tried to bolster their children’s mental health. Perhaps these parental insights can guide you toward strategies that can enhance your kids’ mental well-being.
Kids’ Mental Health Tips
Talk about it
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends inviting your kids to share their feelings.
“Keep in mind that adolescents and young adults may try to hide their struggles because of fear, shame, or a sense of responsibility to avoid burdening others,” the organization says. “Younger children may not know how to talk about these feelings but may show changes in their behavior or development.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers questions that might pose to your children, such as:
- What worries you most about COVID-19?
- Have you been feeling nervous about going back to school because of COVID-19?
- When our minds are stuck on bad things, it can be really hard to focus on other things. Have you ever felt this way? What kinds of things does your mind get stuck on?
Keep in mind that some kids might need lots of time and space to express their feelings, the pediatrics group says. Some might do better with gradual conversations, or even with non-verbal activities like painting or drawing that enable them to express themselves and manage stress.
The pediatrics organization suggests watching for signs of depression, hopelessness, anxiety and anger in your children.
Encourage better sleep
A study published in 2020 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry concludes that lack of sleep may contribute to depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior and poor cognitive performance in kids. The study examined data for 11,000 children ages 9 to 11.
To help avoid such problems, follow these sleep guidelines for school-age kids from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine:
- Children 3 to 5 should sleep 10 to 13 hours a day.
- Children 6 to 12 should sleep nine to 12 hours a day.
- Teens 13 to 18 should sleep eight to 10 hours a day.
Pump up physical activity
Regular exercise can improve not only a child’s physical health but their mental health. The American Psychiatric Association notes that a review of 114 studies found physical activity “has a small but significant effect” on kids ages 6 to 18.
“On average, young people who exercise more have lower levels of depression, stress and psychological distress, and higher levels of positive self-image, life satisfaction and psychological well-being,” the association says.
Promote mindfulness and relaxation
Practicing mindfulness, focusing on the present, engaging in yoga or doing stretches are among the ways that you might help ease the pandemic-related mental burden that your kids face, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Stick to a healthy diet
To boost your kids’ mental health, prepare meals with plenty of fruits and vegetables along with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, according to Sutter Health. Ideal foods for a brain-healthy diet include nuts, seeds, legumes and dark-green leafy vegetables.
In an effort to reduce the likelihood of anxiety or depression, limit your children’s consumption of sugar and processed foods, Sutter Health suggests. Why? Sugar and processed foods can trigger inflammation throughout the body and brain, which may contribute to mood disorders.
“A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health,” says Felice Jacka, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. “A healthy diet is protective, and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.”
Seek professional help
Your child’s doctor can screen your children for depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health issues. If any of these issues raise a red flag, the doctor may make a referral to a therapist, psychologist or other mental health professional.
If your child is expressing suicidal thoughts, immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “TALK” to 741741. Call 911 only if your child is threatening to take their life.