COVID-19 impacts children’s mental health

With the little information we have about COVID-19, it seems like the virus tends to favour the older generation, with more seniors getting severely ill than children. Despite the fact that many of our kids may not be getting physically sick from the virus, research has shown that the pandemic is having a definite affect on their mental health.

According to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in June, the pandemic has the potential to cause higher depression and anxiety among children, due to lack of routine, more screen time, and reduced physical activity.

When schools shut down in March, North Grenville resident and mother of two, Melissa Button, thought her children would just see it as an extended March break. Although her youngest, Penelope (5), took it quite well, her eldest, Emma (8), had a really hard time. “She was quite devastated,” Melissa remembers. “There was a lot of questions like ‘what about my work’ and ‘what about my shoes.’ ”

Melissa says those first two weeks were rough, with Emma asking a lot of fear-based questions about what she was hearing on the news about the pandemic. Her anxiety also manifested in sleep disturbances, with her waking up with night terrors regularly. “She was internalizing a lot of things,” Melissa says.

At the three-week mark, Melissa and her husband had to tell Emma that the school shut down had been extended, possibly for the rest of the school year. Emma was extremely upset, because she had been counting down the days until she could return to the classroom on the calendar in her room. “There were lots of tears and, oddly enough, fear about being behind, which I was a little surprised about at her age,” she says. “Her anxiety was just so high on everything.”

Emma quickly went from a happy go lucky child to isolating herself in her room whenever she got upset. Then, about once a week, the floodgates would open and she would sob about missing her friends, teachers and family. Even now, months into the pandemic, Melissa says her anxiety is much higher about simple things like going into a store, even with a mask on. “What if someone comes too close? What if someone coughs?” she worries. “It’s kind of heartbreaking.”

Melissa called Children’s Mental Health of Leeds and Grenville (CMHLG) who she says were fantastic in helping her support Emma. “It was just a one session type thing where they gave us pointers on how to address things like validating her fears, because a lot of it was very valid,” she says.

Executive Director of CMHLG, Lorena Crosby, says that while they have seen a decrease in calls throughout the pandemic, she knows there are lots of other children like Emma out there. The affect of the pandemic is always a topic they bring up with any child or family who is referred to their services. “It’s always about the current situation and what is on people’s minds,” she says. “Staff are capable and ready to have those conversations.”

Mother of three, Kristin Strackerjan, says the realities of the pandemic really hit her children at the end of the school year. When they realized that their typical end of the year activities weren’t going to happen, summer camps were cancelled, and they wouldn’t have access to the Kemptville pool or other recreational facilities, they started to wonder what they were going to do all summer. “Home becomes boring after a while,” she says.

Kristin says it has been interesting to see how her three children have adapted differently to COVID-19 restrictions. Her eldest, Mabel (12), had a bit of an easier time because she was connected with her friends through social media and apps like FaceTime. Her two boys, Oscar (11) and Zach (9), connected with their friends through playing online games, but have definitely missed the social interaction with their friends that they would have had at school or their usual summer activities. “When there was an opportunity to see a friend, or if we happened to be in town and we saw someone even from a distance, it was something that would be talked about for days,” she says. “I think that was when I started to realize that they were having a harder time with it than they were actually showing.”

Kristin can tell that keeping on top of all the COVID-19 restrictions has been exhausting for her children, and she knows it isn’t going to get better once they return to school in September. “When they go back to school, we’re all anticipating that it’s going to be better for them mentally,” she says. “In some cases, it may be really hard to adapt.”

She has found that managing expectations and being open and honest have been essential in talking to her children about COVID-19, especially with the uncertainty that everyone is facing right now. “There’s a constant need to set expectations so it’s not an extreme disappointment when things don’t go that way,” she says.

Melissa agrees that keeping the lines of communication open is her main focus for helping both her girls get through this difficult time.“A lot of check ins to make sure they are doing OK.”

Because Penelope has health issues, Melissa and her husband have opted not to send their girls back to school in the Fall. She says that while she knows they will miss their teachers and friends, it is the right thing to do for their family. However, she says the decision has kept her up at night, worrying that Penelope will fall behind and that Emma’s mental health will suffer because she won’t have the social interaction she craves. “It’s a really hard choice,” she says.

Lorena of CMHLG wants families to know that they are there to support both parents and children, as students return to school or start remote learning at home. CMHLG is offering their full range of services and can accommodate both virtual and in-person ap- pointments. “Don’t be afraid to call,” she says. “It can be a one-time phone call, or a more in-depth service. We can help figure out with families what is going to be best for them.”

For more information about CMHLG, or to access support, visit www.cmhlg.ca.

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