Added Anxiety: The Pandemic's Impact on Children’s Mental Health

Beyond fear of COVID-19, remote learning, social isolation and other stressors are taking a toll on kids of all ages.

Chuck Nelson
Children may be suffering from anxiety, isolation and other pandemic stressors.

We’re likely to remember 2020 as a year that was anything but normal, a time of constant adaptation in a never-ending season of change.

The pandemic forced most people to alter something in their lives, be it how they work, what they do to relax or how they learn. Some of those changes landed harder than others.

As we became acutely aware of our physical health, we also began to pay more attention to our mental well-being—especially where our children are concerned.

Beginning in April 2020, emergency room visits for children’s mental health issues rose significantly through the year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. “Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health-related visits for children aged 5-11 and 12-17 years increased 24 percent and 31 percent, respectively,” the November report says.

It’s a concerning trend that continues today.

“We’re seeing a lot more worry, a lot more sadness, a lot more difficulty expressing anger,” says Nicole Dempster, a psychologist with Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Everybody is just going through so much.”

The pandemic has especially exacerbated issues for students who were already having school and learning challenges, Dempster says. “The kids I worry about the most are the kids that didn’t have a strong social life prior to the pandemic,” she says.

Syntero, which provides counseling services to some Central Ohio school systems, also saw more inquiries as the pandemic took hold. “We are seeing that increase because there has been an unprecedented amount of stress and change,” says Melissa Rotblatt, a Syntero school prevention coordinator who works in the Dublin City School District.

Rotblatt says some of these issues may be coming to light as families spend more time together out of necessity. “They’re picking up more clues,” she says of parents, in part because kids are spending more time at home.

But parents shouldn’t feel they always have to have a solution. “Our kids look to us for answers. And for probably the first time ever, in the pandemic, they look to us for answers and we say, ‘I don’t know how to fix this,’” psychologist Emily King told parents and teachers during a recent webinar on well-being for Upper Arlington City School District. “We’re all doing the best we can, but how do we show up for our kids in a way that they can trust us when we are already feeling anxious ourselves?”

Parents have been wearing multiple hats for a long time, King says, “and it’s not sustainable.”

“I think we’re seeing a lot more shorter fuses in general—with parents, with kids,” Dempster says. “Everybody feels like they have a little less patience and grace.”

Coping Strategies

Relying on routines, such as consistent bedtimes, can help quell some of the anxiety, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. “They create a sense of order that offers reassurance in a very uncertain time,” the organization says on its website. “All children, including teens, benefit from routines that are predictable yet flexible enough to meet individual needs.”

Dempster says long- and short-term creative projects can be another good coping strategy. Try things like building puzzles, exploring new places to hike or redecorating a room. “I think we need visual inputs that change,” she says.

Getting kids involved in planning such activities can also give them something to take their mind off things. It takes the onus off parents and gets kids’ creative juices going as well, she says.

Paying more attention to how they spend their own free time can also help parents cope, Dempster says. “I notice that adults often spend their extra 15 minutes on their phone or sleeping, and that actually doesn’t make you feel more fulfilled or accomplished or restored,” she says. “It just feels like you lost another 15 minutes.

“We’re working on kids feeling positively reinforced, but are we taking time to notice how well we’re doing?”

For many youngsters, a tear in their social fabric has been the biggest challenge. “Kids aren’t able to engage with their friends in the same way,” Rotblatt says, pointing to the isolation many experience from the lack of everyday activities and contact.

Many have turned to digital forms of communication—texting, FaceTime and Zoom—to stay in touch. “For older teenagers, there’s some more independence, more flexibility to be able to communicate with friends on their own time,” Rotblatt says. But younger kids may not have as much access to phones and tablets or may be slowed by parental settings, she says. “That’s probably OK because, developmentally, we might have some concerns about, you know, our first-grader being on Instagram unmonitored.”

Find tips and advice to help children cope with grief.

Screen Time Soars

Adapting to shifting education styles can be another stressor for kids and adults.

“Our goals are to just survive this and hold all of our relationships together,” King says. “Not necessarily to make the same amount of progress as we were making before.

“Our kids are not falling behind, which is a big fear this year; they’re surviving the pandemic.”

King expects kids to return to the classroom with a range of unmet skills and needs. “And that’s a problem we’ll deal with as we go along,” she says.

“We’ve really focused on those students who we know need additional support,” says Amy Hilbert, a sixth-grade social studies and science teacher at Waggoner Road Middle School in Reynoldsburg. “There are still ways to help them learn and help them grow.

“We’re trying anything and everything. I think I would say my biggest professional development this year has been TikTok,” she says with a laugh. “I get so many ideas from it.”

Nate Gaver of Reynoldsburg has used gaming as a way to keep in touch with friends during the pandemic. The Reynoldsburg high school senior hopes to continue his passion for swimming at the college level.

If it seems like your kids have been spending more time in front of a screen, you’re not wrong. Between distance learning and regular habits, time on devices is up, Axios.com reports. “For most parents, pre-pandemic expectations around screen time are no longer realistic,” Axios says. “The concern now has shifted from the number of hours in front of screens to the quality of the screen time.”

A Morning Consult survey from August showed that 70 percent of parents estimated their kids spent at least four hours a day with screens. That was up from 60 percent who said their kids spent no more than three hours per day before the pandemic.

Lots of that extra screen time is being spent on games—far more than passively watching movies or television shows. Chats and messaging were also increasingly popular with older kids.

That’s one of the ways Nate Gaver and his friends have stayed connected during the pandemic.

While his family frequently takes advantage of outdoor activities, the senior at Reynoldsburg High School’s HS 2 STEM Academy stays connected with buddies online for socially distanced fun.

“We’ve had a big increase in gaming in our house in the last nine or 10 months,” says Nate’s mother, Celeste Gaver. “They can still talk about things. It’s great that they can share those experiences, but in a safe way.”

“It’s the best way me and my friends have found to hang out and be able to still talk to each other,” Nate says. “It’s not like texting where there are pauses between messages. You’re hearing each other’s voices, but you’ve got miles between you.

“Everybody has their own little niche,” he says. “We like to experiment to see whose favorite genre is the best.”

Missing Out

Many older kids also are experiencing a sense of loss from missed opportunities, such as graduations or social functions.

“This was certainly true back in the spring and summer of 2020, when many of these canceled events were unexpected and kids had to adjust to the loss of an event they had likely built up in their mind and envisioned as part of their story,” King says. She’s seeing the biggest impact on students from fifth, eighth and 12th grades, who are missing unique transition experiences.

Laxmi Oli, a senior who attends eSTEM Academy at Reynoldsburg High School, is one of those students. As someone who’s heavily involved in school activities, Laxmi initially struggled with the switch to online classes and the subsequent move to virtual meetings. She misses her friends and has only seen them via FaceTime since the pandemic started.

“I had a plan on what my year was going to look like. But after the virus hit, it’s been pretty tough,” she says. “This is my last year, senior year, so it was meant to be the best year of high school, right?”

While the changes have made building good memories a challenge, Laxmi remains optimistic. “After the pandemic, I’m just looking for the best, the brightest, future,” she says.

Though we’re not through with the pandemic yet—or maybe it isn’t through with us—things are looking up after one of the seemingly longest winters in memory.

“We have to give ourselves and our kids a lot of grace and, at this point in the game, lots of praise,” King says. “We’ve made it this far, and there does start to feel like a light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines and springtime and a new year. There’s that feeling that’s better than a few months ago, but we’re still very much in it.”

This story is from the Spring 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.

MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES

Who should you turn to when your child’s behavior makes you suspect there’s a problem?

Parents know their child best; they know their baseline, says Melissa Rotblatt, a school prevention coordinator with Syntero.

If you’re concerned, reach out to whoever you’re comfortable with, she says. This could be pediatricians, school counselors, teachers or principals.

What to Look for

Rotblatt says incidence of psychosomatic complaints can be cause for concern. These include stomachaches or headaches that aren’t linked to known medical issues, increased self-isolation or withdrawal, emotional outbursts or physical aggression. Acts of regression, such as bedwetting or repeatedly asking the same question, also can be a sign of trouble, says Nicole Dempster, a psychologist with Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

For Immediate Safety Concerns

  • Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Franklin County Youth Psychiatric Crisis Line 614-276-2273 (adults) or 614-722-1800 (ages 17 and younger)
  • Ohio Mental Health Information and Referral Line 877-275-6364

More Resources

Syntero has resources available at syntero.org/resources, including a webinar series for K-12 parents.

On Our Sleeves from Nationwide Children’s Hospital offers pandemic-related behavioral health resources at onoursleeves.org/find-help/tools-for-you/coronavirus.

Tips on Managing Stress and Anxiety (Syntero)

Tips for Creating a New Routing (Syntero)

Alcohol and Substance Use During COVID (CDC)

A Guide to Sleeping With Coronavirus Anxiety

Association of Child Life Professionals

Self-help books for children by Dawn Huebner