Supporting Children through the COVID-19 Pandemic
by Sarah Lester, MD, and Rebecca Lozman-Oxman, DNP, APRN, MPH | New London Hospital and Newport Health Center
While COVID-19 is affecting children much less than adults–children ages five to 17 make up 9.1% of cases and newborns to four-year-olds represent 1.9% of cases*–the safety measures instituted to slow the spread of the virus have radically changed their lives. Most are learning remotely, lack peer socialization from school and extracurricular activities, and cannot spend time with extended family members and friends. As a result, calls to our pediatric offices for anxiety and depression support have significantly increased.
The good news? There are steps parents can take to improve the mental health of their children as the pandemic wears on. It’s important to recognize how trying the past year has been for everyone: being a parent during a pandemic is really difficult, as is being a child. Acknowledging losses caused by COVID-19 helps children feel heard. Discuss the changes in their routines and education; missed events like graduations, birthday parties, and sporting events; and any feelings of lost security and safety.
Ask children if they have questions about COVID-19 and provide factual, age-appropriate responses. It’s ok to say you don’t have all the answers. You’re there to keep them healthy and to talk: let them vent and be reassuring. Use positive messaging, and ask questions like, “What are you going to tell your grandkids about this time?” to reinforce the temporary nature of the situation.
It’s helpful to keep a consistent, yet flexible, daily schedule. Those who can pivot easily tend to manage stress better. Follow specific times for meals, exercise, and screen time. Spend some one-on-one time with your children, even if it’s just doing chores together. Praise good behavior, and mix things up with fun, at-home activities like a pretend theme park visit or ice cream for dinner. Redirect any negative behavior and enforce age-appropriate consequences.
Children need socialization and social media provides it, but review their feeds and safe online behavior with them. Model behavior you want to see in your children, including breaks from social media and screen time. Remember to practice self-care, take deep breaths, forgive yourself, forgive others, and don’t compare yourself to anyone–you’re doing a good job!
*as of 1/26/21, CDC.gov
If your child is isolating and not participating in family activities, seek help from your pediatrician, school counselor, or mental health provider. For more information, visit newlondonhospital.org and covid19parenting.com.