- The lack of consistency over the last year has been detrimental to children’s mental health.
- Many kids remain afraid of losing a loved one, but they’re also afraid that this pandemic will never end.
- After a year of being home with their parents, a return to school and work may kick up some separation anxiety for some children.
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It’s been a year since COVID-19 changed life as we know it — a year of school closures, physical distancing, and adjusting to the new normal.
However, despite our efforts to adjust the best we can, many people are still harboring fears related to the novel coronavirus — especially young children.
Licensed child psychologist and founder of Atlas Psychology, Amy Nasamran, PhD, told Healthline that because the last year has involved so many unavoidable changes and adjustments, kids are lacking the predictability and consistency they typically rely on to feel safe.
“Children tend to thrive and do better with structure because they know what to expect,” she explained. “Quickly changing situations and ambiguity with what the future may look like can cause some children to feel anxious.”
Not knowing what to expect is just one of the things contributing to fears children may be carrying right now, though.
Psychotherapist and licensed social worker Margaret Cochran, PhD, said that kids are still contending with two big fears.
The first is straightforward: She said that a lot of children remain fearful of losing their parents or loved ones to COVID-19. But the second fear is one many may not even know how to articulate.
Kids are afraid the inconsistency, distancing, and massive loss of lives will never end.
“To a child, a year is an eternity,” Cochran explained. “As there has been so little positive change in the last weeks and months, the pandemic can feel like it’s forever and they will never see their friends again, go to school, or feel safe to play with others.”
Younger kids (toddler age and below) aren’t old enough to have necessarily recognized the changes brought forth by the last year. But Nasamran says that they’re perceptive enough to have potentially been impacted by those changes.
“Some separation anxiety in toddlers between ages 1 and 3 is part of typical toddler development,” she explained. “With the stress of pandemic life, toddlers may be especially fearful about separating from their parents or caregivers.”
By school age, however, she said that kids have the cognitive capacity to envision the real-life what-ifs of the pandemic. This includes the fear of death.
“The children and adolescents who remember a different way to be in the world are those who suffer most,” Cochran said. “They are, as we are, grieving.”
That grief, she said, can extend to the loss of social connections, hugs, familiar routines, and developmental milestone events such as graduations, birthdays, and more.
“Providing as much structure as is feasible during this time is important,” Nasamran said. “Sticking with the parts of your family routine that you’re able [to] can provide kids with a sense of security that they need to thrive.”
When changes in routine are unavoidable, she says that it’s key to give children a heads-up as far in advance as possible. This provides them with the time and opportunity to understand and adjust their expectations.
“For bigger fears and anxiety, reading books about COVID topics is a great way to start the discussion and engage kids at their level,” she said. “Most books use age-appropriate language that makes it easier for kids to grasp.”
By reading books that allow kids to hear the story through the eyes of other characters, you can help your kids to feel less alone in their fears, Nasamran explains.
“It can also be easier for kids to take a step back and understand or relate to the story objectively.”
Cochran said that it’s equally important for parents to remember that their kids are watching them and they’re looking for calm and positive reactions.
“Taking a few minutes each day to develop a family gratitude practice can make a huge positive difference in the lives of both your children and yourself,” she said.
This can be as simple as going around the dinner table each night and listing something you’re thankful for.
“Even though your kids may moan and complain that it’s dumb, do it anyway,” Cochran said. “Research has shown that this helps build mental resiliency, improves mood, and lowers stress. They’ll thank you after they turn 25 and their collective brains are fully developed.”
With schools reopening and many workplaces welcoming their employees back to in-office work, it’s fair to say that these changes may impact some kids as well — especially those who’ve grown used to being home with family 24/7.
“Even though separation anxiety is more common in toddlers, some school-age children may feel sad or worried after being at home for an extended time,” explained Nasamran. “It’s important to reflect and validate their feelings, while at the same time reminding them of the precautions in place as well as things they can look forward to at school.”
She says that it’s easy for kids to become hyper-focused on the fear and forget what they enjoy about school when anxiety starts to take over.
That’s when it may be a good idea to remind them how much they love being around their teacher and friends.
For those who seem to be exhibiting genuine separation anxiety while returning to school and being away from their parents, Cochran says that they may benefit from some extra emotional support and coaching throughout the day. They may also need permission to touch base with their parents regularly.
“These practices will then be slowly faded over time as they are no longer needed,” she said.
If you’re concerned your child may need some of that extra support, talking with their teacher and administrators can be a great place to start in figuring out the best ways to help them ease into the change.
“There are children, just like adults, who are genetically prone to experience depression and anxiety, especially in times of high stress,” Cochran said.
She listed the following symptoms as signs your child may need additional help and support:
- poor or increased appetite, undesirable weight loss or gain
- disturbed sleep
- loss of interest in formerly important activities
- withdrawal from friends and family
- expressing feeling of hopelessness or helplessness
- dropping grades
If you notice any of these signs, or if your child is expressing uncontrollable anxiety to you, Cochran says that it’s important to take them to their physician first to make sure there are no physical causes for these changes in behavior.
Once that’s been ruled out, she says that it’s time to seek the services of a licensed mental health professional.
“COVID and some of the other disasters that children have had to undergo have placed unusual emotional burdens on them,” Cochran said. “I cannot stress enough how important a factor their parent’s attitude is in the maintenance of their mental health.”
She explains that while adults know there are typically corresponding ups that follow down periods in life, children don’t have the life experience to know that. They need to hear from the adults in their lives that things can and will get better.
“Talk about and make plans for the future and what they can look forward to as individuals and what you will do together as a family,” Cochran added.
She encourages parents to remind children that fear can be normal, especially after what the last year has brought us. But also, it’s important to show them, through your own actions, that pushing through those fears is possible and necessary for a return to happy, healthy, social lives.