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Your Child’s Mental Health One Year Into the Pandemic

March 23, 2021 | Abby Liu

Early on during the pandemic, we couldn’t have predicted that we would still be in the throes of battle with COVID-19 a year later. We taught our children to wear masks. Physical distance. Wash their hands. We limit travel. These are all important measures that we take for our own safety and the safety of others. For some of us, there is comfort that we can do something

And yet we’re also fraying from the isolation. The grief of large and small losses and everything in between. Zoom. Google meets. The threat of exposure. The new “normal” that really isn’t normal at all. All of us– our children, too–are experiencing a collective trauma. Our life as a community has been permanently altered. And while we see the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel as the vaccines finally make their way into arms, we will all still feel the impact of this time for years to come. One year in, you may be wondering, how do I know if my child is ok? What can I do to help my child?

What is “normal” for children to be feeling during this time?

Your child may have more pronounced feelings of sadness, fear, and loneliness during this time. They might be more irritable, angry, or anxious. Siblings might be more prone to bickering. Teenagers may experience more mood swings. All may have trouble staying focussed and engaged through hours of Zoom instruction.  Right now, this is normal. Most of us can agree that we’re feeling some level of struggle right now. This is normal for us and it’s normal for our children. 

When should I be concerned about my child’s mental health?

Children who are experiencing mental illness or a mental health crisis do not present the same way as adults. If you notice significant changes in sleep, appetite, behavior, or mood, pay attention. If your child is having difficulty with their day-to-day activities or with others, they might need help. 

Children’s Mental Health of Ontario outlines the following as indicators that you should seek professional help:

  • Extreme outbursts or excessive mood swings
  • Worrying so much that they are getting stomach aches or headaches
  • Persistent nightmares and a lack of sleep that are affecting your child’s day
  • Avoiding formerly enjoyable activities, including spending time with friends
  • Unusually quiet, sad or reserved, preoccupied
  • Change in appetite – eating considerably less, or more.

How the Pandemic Impacts Children’s Mental Health (Children’s Mental Health Ontario)

According to Dr. Judith Schteingart, our school counselor, “Typically, consultation with a mental health professional is a good idea when a child is experiencing ongoing distress, or their issues are significantly interfering with school, social, or daily life functioning. While parents may anxiously wait to see if the difficulties are just a passing phase, it is often very helpful to discuss them with an experienced professional to gain additional guidance and perspective. A mental health professional can help you determine whether the difficulties are par for the course, can be ameliorated with some relatively simple changes or strategies, or whether more in depth treatment or additional referrals are indicated.” 

Who should I contact to receive help? 

Your pediatrician or a mental health professional is a great place to start. They will listen to your concerns and help you determine what kind of an evaluation or intervention might be warranted. Your pediatrician should also have recommendations for child and family therapists. You can also reach out to your child’s teacher, academic director, or one of our learning specialists if you have concerns about school. They might also put you in touch with our school counselor, Dr. Judith Schteingart or other local resources. 

What can I do at home to help my child?

Our physical education and health teacher Zach Licato recommends the following: 

  • Stay active. Keep yourself and your children active. Focus on the act of physical activity, not necessarily the amount. It is more about consistency than duration. Physical activity also releases endorphins in our brain.

 

  • Make sure your child gets adequate sleep. Good sleep is essential to overall health. Maintain a routine and sleep schedule if you can, wake up and go to bed at the same time every day.  Experts recommend keeping screens out of the bedroom and turning off your screen at least 30 minutes before you go to bed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children aged 3-5 sleep 10-13 hours per 24 hour period. Children ages 6-12 should sleep 9-12 hours. And teens should sleep 8-10 hours.

 

  • Take care of yourself and encourage others to do the same. Take time to take care of yourself. Be supportive and suggest the same for those close to you. Meditation, relaxation, quality time with family, and personal care of yourself promotes overall wellness. Have self compassion and avoid negative self talk. Taking care of yourself allows you to take good care of your child.

 

  • Help your child cope with stress and anxiety. There are lots of positive coping mechanisms. Exercise together: go for a walk, bike ride or scooter. Play in the park. Engage in a meditation or pray together. Read a book. Develop a skill or hobby. Play a game. Draw or make art. Schedule a Zoom playdate. 

 

  • Go outside or take a drive. Sometimes just getting out of the house can help lift spirits. Tip: sometimes driving in the car is a good time to ask your child how they’re doing. Because you are both facing forward and not looking at each other, it can be easier for your child to talk to you.


  • Build in breaks and time to connect. Find time during the day to take healthy breaks. Find ways to live, love, and connect. 

 

Should I be concerned about screen time?

Remember when we used to define the amount of screen time our kids had each day? Sometimes it feels like we’re now doing the opposite–defining how much time they have to be OFF the screens. One of the realities of the pandemic is that we’re all on screens a lot more than we would probably be otherwise. According to a New York Times article by Matt Richtel:

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician who studies children’s use of mobile technology at the University of Michigan, said she did countless media interviews early in the pandemic, telling parents not to feel guilty about allowing more screen time, given the stark challenges of lockdowns. Now, she said, she’d have given different advice if she had known how long children would end up stuck at home.

“I probably would have encouraged families to turn off Wi-Fi except during school hours so kids don’t feel tempted every moment, night and day,” she said, adding, “The longer they’ve been doing a habituated behavior, the harder it’s going to be to break the habit.”

Children’s Screen Time Has Soared in the Pandemic, Alarming Parents and Researchers 

(New York Times)

Of course, the difficulty is that the use of screens extends not just to school and work, but to socializing and entertainment as well. The key is to try to strike a balance as best you can. Try to ensure that your children spend time off the screen each day and have time to play, read, and spend time with family members and pets. Hannah Sheldon-Dean of the Child Mind Institute recommends thinking about screens in terms of wellness and if your child is doing things that are healthy for their development. In the post, Screen Time During the Coronavirus Crisis, she offers these questions as a guidelines to evaluating screen time:

  • Is my child sleeping enough and eating a somewhat balanced diet?
  • Are they getting some form of exercise every day?
  • Are they spending some quality time with family?
  • Do they use some screen time to keep in touch with friends?
  • Are they invested in school and keeping up with homework?

Sheldon-Dean says that if you can answer “yes” to most of those questions, don’t sweat the additional screen time right now.

Learn more: 

 

Watch:

Feeling Anxious Or Unhappy Is The Norm Right Now (video by Dr. Noha Polack of Progressive Pediatrics in Union City)

Listen: 

Parent Trapped (Common Sense Media)

Pandemic Parenting: Balancing Work, Kids and Mental Health (The Takeaway: WNYC)

Read:

Emptying the Dishwasher Can Enrich Kids’ Mental Health (New York Times)

Neglecting Yourself Doesn’t Make You a Better Mother (New York Times)

Children’s Screen Time Has Soared in the Pandemic, Alarming Parents and Researchers (New York Times)

How the Pandemic Impacts Children’s Mental Health (Children’s Mental Health Ontario)

Helping Children Cope With Changes Resulting From COVID-19 (National Association of School Psychologists)

Screen Time During the Coronavirus Crisis (Child Mind Institute)

Abby Liu

Former Director of Marketing and Communications

Abby Liu was the Director of Marketing and Communications from Sept. 2018-August 2021 and was an employee of Mustard Seed School for over 14 years. She’s the parent of two Mustard Seed School alumni. She's seen the impact of a Mustard Seed education from the early preschool days all the way up to eighth grade and beyond, and thoroughly enjoys sharing the Mustard Seed School story to this day.

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