We may not yet fully understand the pandemic’s long-term mental health effects on children, but this is an opportunity to begin addressing their social-emotional needs and to continue promoting healthy development, even in the midst of a global crisis. Here are 5 ways to support children’s social-emotional health during COVID-19.

Both the realities and uncertainties of COVID-19 have led to strong emotions. The unpredictability of the new disease may produce fear and anxiety. Sheltering in place and social distancing may lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Losing a family member to the disease can cause long-term grief and trauma. And the onslaught of news, current events, and social commentary may lead to ongoing stress and anxiety. It isn’t clear how this daily reality will affect the social-emotional health of children and teens over time.


A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics uncovered another factor magnifying the impact of COVID-19 on children’s social-emotional health: school closures. According to authors of the study, “Schools have long served as a de facto mental health system for many children and adolescents.” In fact, the study states that schools provide mental health services to 57 percent of children who need care. As some schools have been closed for months, many students have missed out on critical mental-health services.


Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, primary-care pediatrician, director of pediatric telemedicine, and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, recently wrote about the toll of COVID-19 on children’s mental health for CNN Health.


According to Dr. Bracho-Sanchez, there’s no way of predicting the long-term impact of the pandemic on children. In her opinion, “Some kids may come out the other end with increased resilience. Others may experience the type of long-term trauma that impairs their development and keeps them overly cautious in the future.”


We may not yet fully understand the pandemic’s long-term mental health effects on children, but this is an opportunity to begin addressing their social-emotional needs and to continue promoting healthy development, even in the midst of a global crisis.


5 Ways to Support Children’s Social-Emotional Health During COVID-19


1. Limit their news consumption.


There is no shortage of news, information, commentary, and rumors circulating about COVID-19, both online and in real life. Not surprisingly, constantly watching, reading, or listening to news about the pandemic can increase children’s feelings of anxiety and distress.


Limit children’s news intake during this time. This includes browsing social media, watching and listening to news media, and even having conversations with others that may highlight pessimistic viewpoints.


Check out You Can Control Your Worries, a gamebook to help children with anxiety disorders.


2. Keep them informed.


At the same time, you want to ensure that children know the facts, which can help to minimize their fears. Share information from trusted sources, and focus on information that provides practical steps to keeping yourself and others safe.


Do your best to distinguish facts from rumors and misinformation. Check resources such as the World Health Organization (WHO) website (https://www.who.int/) and local health-authority platforms to gather factual, up-to-date information about COVID-19.


3. Provide activities that reduce the effects of stress and anxiety.


There are a number of ways to help children manage stress and anxiety during this time, including stress-management activities. Incorporate the following activities into their daily routines to help counter the negative effects on their social-emotional health:


  • Yoga: Yoga combines physical poses, controlled breathing, and meditation to prevent or reduce anxiety.
  • Mindfulness: Defined by the Mayo Clinic as a “focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgement,” mindfulness is effective at restoring emotional balance. Increasing your awareness of your thoughts, needs, and emotions can help you have healthier responses to stress.
  • Guided imagery: Using your imagination to “escape” to a calm and peaceful place can help to relieve stress.
  • Physical activity: Exercise and physical activity produces endorphins, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, which provide anti-anxiety effects.


4. Encourage children to stay social and connected.


As social beings, social connection is critical to good mental health. But as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in some areas, we’re expected to maintain social distancing from friends and loved ones. This may lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness and, ultimately, to mental-health issues.


While physical distancing is encouraged, we must do our best to ensure children feel socially connected. Find unique ways to promote social connectedness. Schedule virtual play dates, start an online book or movie club, or even plan socially distanced lunch dates or neighborhood walks or bike rides. Find fun and innovative ways to keep kids social while they’re physically away from friends and family.


5. Provide space for children to express their feelings.


Follow their lead when it comes to having conversations about COVID-19. Some children may not want to talk about it or may feel overwhelmed with certain topics. If they seem open to talking, give them an opportunity to ask questions or express concerns. This may also be a great time to share your own feelings about COVID-19, as long as it’s done in a developmentally appropriate way.


Another way children can express their feelings is through art. Art is the ultimate form of self-expression, and it’s a great alternative for those who are not comfortable with talking about the pandemic. They can dance (which doubles as a form of creative expression and emotional release), perform a skit, draw pictures, or even write a song that depicts their feelings.


There’s limited evidence on COVID-19’s long-term mental-health effects on children and adolescents. But by analyzing the short-term effects, we realize that doing our best to support their social-emotional health during this time will help them to emerge healthy, happy, and whole.