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The COVID-19 pandemic will impact the emotional and mental health of many children during the holidays, but parents can help them build resiliency during this challenging time. Louise Beaumont/Getty Images
  • Two-thirds of parents are worried about the mental health impact the pandemic is having on their kids.
  • These concerns are becoming especially pronounced moving into the holiday season.
  • Young children are most likely to mimic their parent’s reactions, meaning they need parents and guardians to model healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Teens are likely facing the most difficult mental health impacts as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.

Whether your family has been personally impacted by illness or loss as a result of COVID-19, or you’ve simply had to adjust to this new COVID-prevention way of life, you’ve probably dealt with more than your fair share of distress in 2020 — and so have your kids.

A new survey released December 3 found that two-thirds of parents are worried about their children’s mental health as a result of the pandemic.

These parents are especially concerned about how difficult it may be for their kids to recover the longer COVID-19 continues to be a threat, shutting everything else down.

With the holidays approaching, many parents are becoming increasingly concerned about how different this year will look, and how those changes in traditions will impact their already struggling kids.

However, there are a number of ways in which parents can help kids of any age de-stress during this challenging time and build resilience for the new year ahead.

“Children under 5 are not as aware of what they are missing out on in comparison to their older peers,” licensed psychotherapist Amanda Fludd, LCSW-R, recently told Healthline. “[They] need to simply feel secure and connected.”

For kids this age, Fludd said their sense of safety and love is primarily determined by their parents’ ability to manage their own stress, spend time with them, and create those moments of comfort and anticipation.

“Maintain a routine with them, read them holiday stories, keep up cute traditions like Elf on the Shelf, or create new moments like hot chocolate night,” Fludd suggested. “As a parent you are their most secure connection, and they need you to ground them, more than anything else.”

Clinical psychologist and expert in child psychology Robyn Mehlenbeck, PhD, had similar advice, explaining that kids this age tend to take their cues from their parents. “This means that if parents are adaptive, the kids will respond in kind. If parents are sad and angry about changes they must make (like not seeing grandparents), children will mimic these emotions.”

Concerned parents may still be wondering what signs of distress look like in kids this age. Fludd said parents should be looking for changes in behaviors that last extended periods of time — not just a few days here and there. Those changes might include:

  • difficulty sleeping at night
  • increased clinginess
  • signs of separation anxiety
  • crankiness or irritability
  • trouble focusing on tasks (especially ones they love)
  • emotional overreaction to what seems like small events
  • physical changes like headaches or bed-wetting

Fludd said these can all be signs that your child may be struggling with some sort of stressor in their environment.

“Remember, children are little humans and experience stress too,” she explained.

If you recognize any of these signs, it’s important to remember that you have the power to bring your child back to a place of reassurance and consistency.

“When I think about very young children struggling emotionally, I think of a kite whipping in the wind, with the parent being the string that anchors them,” Fludd explained. “When you notice these changes, it is time to steady that kite, or maybe even bring it in closer to you, because it simply needs to get grounded. Or in your little human’s case, feel secure again.”

Accomplishing that starts with talking to your children honestly, at a level they understand, according to Mehlenbeck. “Ask questions about what they are thinking and worried about — that will give parents the clues they need to talk to them.”

From there, she suggested planning new traditions together as a family, whether that be baking something new, making a big deal of sending care packages to family members that you can’t be in person with, or sharing a typical tradition (such as opening presents Christmas Eve) via Zoom.

“Focus on how the family can give to others this year,” she said.

She suggested virtual volunteering, making cards for people in nursing homes, or dropping surprise cards and handmade goodies off for neighbors, as examples.

“Giving children a purpose outside themselves is a healthy way of coping,” she explained.

Both Mehlenbeck and Fludd said that school aged children are typically more aware of the loss of traditions and the overall stress of the year.

However, they are also more resilient than other age groups and may even be excited about helping to plan new traditions for your family to embrace this year.

If they are struggling, Fludd said you may see similar signs of distress as younger children.

This could look like physical complaints, clinginess (asking if you are feeling OK, when are you coming home, etc.), increased sadness or worry, and withdrawn behaviors like staying in their rooms all day.

She explained, “They may be more verbal too, like, ‘This is never going to get better,’ ‘I hate this,’ ‘I miss my friends.’”

At this age, Mehlenbeck said it is also important to be aware of signs of depression or anxiety, “particularly if children start to withdraw or develop sad or angry moods that seem out of proportion to the current situation.”

However, she also pointed out that some anger and sadness is completely normal these days.

Anxiety and depression in this age group may present as:

  • sleep inconsistencies (either trouble sleeping or sleeping all the time)
  • changes in appetite (to include new, restrictive rules around eating)
  • extreme mood changes
  • development of new fears and obsessions
  • consistent vocalizations about sadness and anger

“If your child is struggling, help them engage with the family more, ensure that they are socially connected with peers (even via Zoom or other outdoor activities such as a bike ride), and if you have additional concerns, contact your pediatrician or a mental health professional,” Mehlenbeck suggested.

She said ideas for helping them engage with the family more might include getting them involved in family meal planning, having a family game night, or organizing an activity like making cards for others.

“Connections and quality time are even more pertinent for this age group,” Fludd explained.

She added that they need a mix of time with their own family and some way to foster safe connections with their friends.

Parents can help facilitate this by contacting the parents of their children’s friends and arranging times when the kids can video chat, or even suggesting the children begin sending each other letters and small presents so they can enjoy the fun of sending and receiving mail.

Teenagers may be the most impacted age group by the current changes being experienced this year, according to Mehlenbeck.

“Having two teens myself, I am seeing it throughout the pandemic, and it is particularly striking as we come on the holiday season,” she said.

Fludd agreed, explaining that teenagers probably need the highest dose of friend connections and consistency with parent connections — both of which may be harder to maintain this year.

“Depression and anxiety are particularly high in this population,” Fludd said. “We’ve seen an increase in teens struggling to cope with being home and few options to break up their day.”

This is a period of intense social learning, she explained. Teenage brains need that socialization in order to thrive and move successfully toward adulthood.

“I advise parents to problem-solve with them,” she suggested. “See what they enjoy and help them find creative ways to foster new connections and ways to engage in that activity. As much as they want to be a part of things, and are afraid to miss out, they are also afraid to take the first step to connect, and often don’t know how.”

They may need their parents to help them with that.

If you suspect your teenager is struggling this holiday season, know they aren’t alone.

“Many teens are struggling with the pandemic, being limited from seeing their friends during a time when they would typically spend more time with their friends than at home,” Mehlenbeck said. “The holidays are likely to increase that sense of isolation for teens.”

Signs of depression in this age group might include:

  • increased irritability
  • appetite and weight changes
  • decreased interest in activities that once brought them joy
  • difficulty concentrating
  • changes in sleeping habits
  • becoming socially withdrawn

“Parents should be particularly worried if their teen talks about, ‘Life is not worth living anymore,’ or, ‘What is the point of getting out of bed?’” Mehlenbeck said. “If this is the case, contact your pediatrician or a mental health professional immediately.”

Even without signs of suicidality, if your teen seems to be struggling mentally, Fludd said it’s always a good idea to call their pediatrician, school social worker, or a therapist for more support.

“We just started a teen/young adult coping group for ages 15 to 20 in our practice, and all 12 girls in the group acknowledged feeling stressed and overwhelmed with not knowing what to do,” Fludd said. “They also thought they were the only ones having that emotional experience.”

She said teens often learn from each other and may need moments like that, particularly with trusted professionals, to know they are not alone. This is also time that allows them to gain concrete tools for understanding their thoughts and safely coping with them.

Most importantly, Mehlenbeck said, “Please talk to your teens. Teens still need their parents.”

She said you can help by getting them involved in planning the holidays, and talking about what traditions you can keep and what may need to be altered.

You can even put them in charge of certain things, including how to include extended family in a unique way or learning to make certain traditional foods.

“Teens like to have input and be heard,” she explained. “This is the best way to help engage teens through the holidays.”

With kids of any age, it’s important to maintain open lines of communication — and to be prepared to call in professionals if you feel like your child is truly struggling.

Mehlenbeck said it’s also a good idea to remind kids that COVID-19 won’t last forever. “It just feels like it.”