Children and teen’s mental health during COVID-19

As a mom to a four-year-old and a five-month-old, I worry about their mental health and development especially during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing.

For Mental Health Awareness Month and Children’s Mental Health Day, we talked with several experts including Andrew Gabor, the Director of Child, Youth, and Family Behavioral Health for the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health and Heather Craiglow, Director of the Colorado Head Start Collaboration Office in the Office of Early Childhood, along with 9Health Expert, Dr. Payal Kohli, a cardiologist but also an expert on preventive medicine and internal medicine.

Help children develop strong mental health habits

“Mental health is a sensitive topic but important to talk about because everyone does have mental health, even babies,” said Heather Craiglow.

Craiglow explained that the foundation for lifelong mental health is set in those early ages, “Often we focus on physical growth of a child and mental health gets overlooked,” she said. “One things families can do to help encourage those healthy habits in young children is focusing on those social, emotional skills.”

Those social skills are developed by maintaining relationships with family and friends, managing their emotions by labeling their feelings and talking about what those feelings mean.

Maintaining relationships is challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic but it can help to check in virtually, have your child call their friends, get your child outside to say hi to neighbors, or set up play dates at a distance so your child can at least see friends and other family.

“One of the important things for childhood development is socializing, because a lot of children learn behaviors by emulating other children,” said Dr. Payal Kohli. “They’re stimulated intellectually to learn new things as well by interacting with their friends.”

So although more challenging, it is important to maintain relationships through the pandemic.

“Just like maintaining our physical health, sometimes it takes exercise and persistence and planning. Same thing with our behavioral health,” explained Andrew Gabor.

He said it’s important to be diligent and transparent when checking in with your children about how they’re feeling and if you child doesn’t want to talk, that’s ok, but keep trying and let them know you’re there for them.

Gabor has two young children himself, “We try to find the good in the day,” he said when asked about how they’re doing.

With school ending, Gabor said his seven-year-old is struggling some with the idea that because of COVID-19, he’s not going to see his friends for a long time.

“It’s important to realize that children aren’t just small adults. Their social and emotional development is very different from an adult, but in some ways similar,” Kohli added.

 “If your child doesn’t have a pediatrician at this time, I can’t stress now more than ever how important it is to establish a primary care relationship both for medical reasons but also psychological and mental reasons. In case either of those need attention over the next several months.”

What are signs your child is struggling mentally and what can you do?

Notice your child’s behavior and note anything that is abnormal for them. Are they extra sad, depressed, overly worried or anxious, talking about suicide? Be sure to address their emotions and take them seriously.

It may be a bigger issue if these feelings are affecting them negatively throughout their daily life, “We’re all going through new changes and emotions, but is it affecting you negatively?” Said Gabor.

Gabor described the COVID-19 pandemic as a trauma, “With school ending, activities getting cancelled, it is a trauma.”

What can parents do?

  • Stay calm – if your children come to you upset about something try to talk calmly with them
  • Put yourself in their shoes and ask them to describe their emotions to help you understand how they’re feeling
  • Don’t make assumptions about what they need – ask them how you can help and let them know you’re there for them
  • Praise small behaviors – hunt down good behaviors and praise that
  • Structure – it’s important to remain some level of structure but still have flexibility and build in time for fun
  • Talk routinely with kids about what is going on and be transparent
  • Make sure your children feel safe

Important for parents to manage mental health as well

“When feeling stressed and overwhelmed, take a break,” said Craiglow.

Information overload is real and it’s important to take breaks from reading and watching the news. Try to take care of yourself, exercise and get plenty of sleep. As we have said before, your physical health is directly tied to your mental health.

Craiglow also said to be sure to give yourself some compassion, “For some families, working from home, homeschooling, caring for ourselves and others, it’s a lot to manage.”

9Health has free, anonymous, online mental health screenings for adults. You can click here to be screened for anxiety and depression and be connected to free virtual help.

Additional resources

If you want to talk to someone for advice, contact Colorado Crisis Services by calling 1-844-493-8255 or texting “TALK” to 38255 for free, confidential, 24/7 support. 

Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline: Visit Co4kids.org or call 844-CO-4-Kids

National Domestic Violence Hotline: Visit Thehotline.org or text loveis to 22522

COACT Colorado: https://coactcolorado.org/

Children and Youth Mental Health Treatment Act: https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdhs/children-and-youth-mental-health-treatment-act

Office of Early Childhood COVID-19 FAQs: http://coloradoofficeofearlychildhood.force.com/oec/OEC_Resources?p=Resources&s=COVID-19&lang=en

If you have a health question you can talk to a medical professional through our 9Health Neighbors Program by calling 303-698-4455, ext. 2005. Leave a message and a 9Health Medical Volunteer will call you back within 24 hours.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and all month we are working with the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health, to host Facebook Live segments and connect you to mental health experts. Watch live on Facebook every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:00 a.m. in May and come ask your questions.

Find all the segments we did for Mental Health Awareness Month on our blog or in our 9Health Video Gallery under mental health.