In this Sept. 13, 2021, file photo, a girl passes a "Welcome Back to School" sign as she arrives for the first day of class at Brooklyn's PS 245 elementary school in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a rude awakening to the lives many families, their children and schools that educate them. A little over a year ago, families had to quickly adjust during the pandemic lockdown, school and child care closures, home confinement, social distancing and virtual learning. The disruption of a predictable daily routine structure and sense of security has exacerbated existing mental health conditions among young people.

Dr. Gia Washington, Pediatric Psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital: Photo: Baylor College of Medicine

While these major pivots were necessary and essential public health strategies for curbing the spread of COVID-19, these measures had negative impacts on the psychological, mental and emotional well-being of children. According to the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics, data shows one-third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or clinical depression related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, school districts have opened their campuses for in-person learning, as the Texas Education Agency pushed districts in that direction, citing data showing that it leads to better learning outcomes compared to remote learning. While the transition back to school might be enticing for many students, the concerns around pandemic learning loss goes beyond academic achievement.

How can families be more proactive in providing emotional support for their children during this time? What strategizes and tools do they need to help their children after school hours? The Defender spoke with Dr. Gia Washington, Pediatric Psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital,  to answer some of these questions.

Defender: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the mental health of young children?

Dr. Gia Washington: We are all coping with the stress of COVID-19 and how much it’s changed our lives. For example, think about a young child, maybe someone who’s two or three or even four years old, and how they’re used to interacting with the world and learning how to behave in certain situations through participating in typical weekly errands and tasks with their family–going to the grocery store, church and different activities. Because of social distancing, we have not been doing that for the past year and a half. To a certain degree, a lot of our kids are missing sort of that social exposure and integration that we would have expected if the pandemic wasn’t occurring. Also, at the other end of the spectrum, there were older adolescents, or even young adults, those who spent their first year of college on screen. They were looking forward to those late adolescent markers like prom, graduation and going off to college. So, putting into practice all the things they learned from their parents about being independent and autonomous, some of those things are being challenged, as well.

Defender: What advice do you have for parents to support and protect children’s emotional well-being during the pandemic?

Dr. Washington: As a psychologist, I often think of parents as the first line of defense for emotional and mental health. And I think parents can probably shoulder a lot of responsibility now in terms of teaching their children how to talk about their emotions. 

  • Create a routine: Plan a sense of normalcy during breakfast, as you are helping them get dressed, driving them to school, or at night before bed time. Use that time to create a warm exchange. Create a safe space for them to express their thoughts and feelings.
  • Provide Reassurance: If your child is coming to you with a lot of questions, and they are reflecting some worry, concern, and confusion about all that’s going on, it’s natural to want to reassure them. But we don’t want to create a falsehood either. I think sometimes parents feel uncomfortable admitting to what they don’t know and sharing that they are also worried and confused as well. But I think it’s appropriate to say to their children, but adding in we’ll work through it, we’ll find an answer together.
  • Seek mental health intervention: If children show an ongoing pattern of emotional or behavioral concerns that can’t be resolved with support, mental health services could be an option. COVID-19 is expected to amplify whatever level of stress we might have. Parents should observe the changes in behaviors when a child gets into a new stressful situation. There are a lot of providers in the community in a lot of disciplines. We certainly have that at Texas Children’s Hospital and make other recommendations for other community providers as well.
  • Maximize Sleep/Reduce on screen time: I think some of the basic things that we maybe sometimes gloss over or negate their importance or impact, sleeping and going to bed at a good time; trying to do what we can to promote rest; and removing electronic items from bedroom or not checking them when we go to sleep or the first thing in the morning. Maybe you want to start your day in terms of being informed, but not with the emotional burden of all the things that we’re facing globally. Start the day with positive intentions, limiting some of the electronic exposure and screen time. Spend time with family and friends.
  • Provide age-appropriate information about COVID-19: Build a relationship with your child’s teachers. Learn how to build that bridge between home and school. Remind them [children] about expectations around safe behavior and what’s fair to themselves as far as self-care practices. As children transition to in-person learning, the children will have to understand the importance of wearing a mask, social distancing and good hygiene. Discuss with the teachers how they incentivize their students to practice good safety habits in school and see what creative activities you can do at home to create consistency.
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