3 Actionable Ways Parents Can Minimize Mental Health Effects In Kids During COVID-19
If there's one recurring theme of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps it's uncertainty. The lack of control rife in these unprecedented times has caused anxiety rates to climb1, and it's no secret mental health and well-being has taken a huge, pandemic-size hit. This may make you wonder how children deal with all the uncertainty (or if they're young enough, do they notice it at all?), and how the pandemic might be affecting their mental health as they grow and develop.
It's a query we were quick to ask board-certified pediatrician Joel Warsh, M.D., on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. His answer? "There definitely can be [long-lasting mental health effects] for certain kids, and that's where parenting really comes in," he says. Which raises the follow-up question: What can parents do to minimize these effects on kids?
Below, Warsh offers his actionable tips:
Be their shield.
"Parents are the most important shield for their children," he explains. He mentions research conducted by Glen Elder, Ph.D., a sociologist who studied children of the Great Depression and showed that "kids did the best when they were shielded from the problems," says Warsh. "[Parents] stayed home and shielded their kids and didn't let them know everything that was going on." It's a striking similarity to what we're collectively going through now, Warsh notes, as many parents, again, are staying home.
Of course, you'll still want to be open and honest when your children come to you with questions, but Warsh notes that simply being there for your kids (physically and emotionally) can help "shield" them as well. "Being home more, being around your kids, being someone that's responsive, that is shown to be very helpful," he says.
Consistency is key.
"Having consistency in your child's life is very important," Warsh adds. Even amid a pandemic, it's important to try to keep a steady routine. Perhaps schedule family dinners at a certain time, or plan for a (socially distant) walk in the park on Sundays.
According to Warsh, some sort of routine sends signals to kids that everything is going to be OK. "If they're not getting those messages, and if they're hearing about all the terrible things all day, then they [can] start to internalize those things. And that's where we can run into trouble," he notes.
Don't forget about your own well-being.
It's no secret parents have taken on more than a few roles during the pandemic: Not only are you a full-time caregiver, but you may add full-time teacher, employee, and chef to the resume as well. It can quickly become overwhelming—that's why Warsh urges parents to also consider their own mental health and overall well-being. After all, it's difficult to care for someone else while running on an empty tank.
"I'm an integrative physician, and I always love to think about how you can keep your body strong in general," Warsh explains. "What are the things that you do have some control over at home?" He mentions the big hitters for keeping immunity up to par: stress, exercise, diet, and sleep (other experts would agree). "These are the foundations that we absolutely know are so key to keeping ourselves healthy, to keep our immune system strong, whether it's a pandemic or any [other] disease," he says.
And when you optimize your own health, you're in a better headspace to help those around you—should they be struggling physically or mentally.
The pandemic is stressful and scary—it only makes sense to wonder how the uncertainty might affect children down the line. Of course, not all kids deal with trauma in the same way, so it's important to take these tips as general guidelines, not gospel. But if you're looking for ways to support your kids' mental health during the pandemic, Warsh's go-to's surely don't hurt.