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COVID’s Impact on Mental Health Issues in Children and Adolescents

July 26, 2021

By Wesley Gallagher

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the lives of nearly everyone in the world over the last year and a half. While it has impacted people differently, no corner of the world was immune to the coronavirus and the implications of a worldwide epidemic. Thankfully, we are seeing some light at the end of this very long tunnel, but the reality is that the effects of the pandemic may be around for years to come, especially mental health issues in children.

Children and adolescents are one group that was particularly affected by coronavirus and the mitigation measures put in place to stop the spread of the virus. And while it may not look the same as it does in adults, children can experience stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues just like adults. The effects of isolation in childhood have been especially prominent during COVID-19. As a parent or caregiver of a child or adolescent who may be dealing with post-COVID woes, you can take comfort in knowing you are not alone, and help is available.

As a parent or caregiver of a child or adolescent who may be dealing with post-COVID woes, you can take comfort in knowing you are not alone, and help is available.

The Psychological Effects of COVID-19 on Children and Adolescents

Let’s start with the facts about the pandemic: Millions of children have missed out on school, extracurriculars, social events, and other normal activities because of the stay-at-home orders. Many were unable to see friends and family and were stuck at home with parents and siblings for weeks or months on end. And as much as we try to protect our children from the reality of what is happening in the world around them, they pick up on more than we think. They sense the tension we’re experiencing, whether it’s over sickness, death, troubled relationships, job instability, or financial problems.

Social anxieties in children can arise from prolonged isolation caused by lockdowns, and depression and anxiety can result from lack of interaction with peers, change in routine, or lack of stimulation. Fear of sickness or death can also cause unusual stress in children, even in those too young to fully understand the implications of the pandemic. 

The Psychological Effects of COVID-19 on Children and Adolescents - The Meadows

Risk Factors for Mental Health Disturbances

Children with developmental differences, learning disabilities, or prior mental health issues were particularly vulnerable to the changes brought on by the pandemic. Many of these youth lost key supports like tutoring and counseling that they received at school or in a counselor’s office. Often, routine is key to success for these at-risk populations, and all routines went out the window in March of last year. 

Children who experienced particular disturbances or losses during the pandemic are also at an increased risk for mental and emotional issues as a result. Thousands of children and adolescents lost parents or grandparents because of COVID-19, and job loss and financial stress were all too common among parents. Children whose parents struggle with mental health or addiction issues may have dealt with excess trauma during lockdowns, a time when their parents may have struggled more with their disease, or simply been around more. 

According to research published on the National Institute of Health’s website, underprivileged children were particularly susceptible to the negative effects of the pandemic. Schools often provide several meals a week for low-income families, as well as childcare for working parents, and many children were left without these vital resources during lockdowns. 

Adolescents are at an especially challenging time in life as they are going through a host of developmental changes at this age. Hormones are fluctuating and emotions often run high, so strains of the pandemic could be particularly hard for this age group. Additionally, more than 50% of mental health issues start by the age of 14, so the early teen years are a key time to look for signs of anxiety, depression, or other problems, global pandemic or not. 

More than 50% of mental health issues start by the age of 14, so the early teen years are a key time to look for signs of anxiety, depression, or other problems, global pandemic or not.

Is Your Child OK? How to Know

While children and adolescents can experience mental health disturbances such as anxiety and depression just like adults, signs and symptoms often look different in younger people. Some may include:

  • Irritability or mood changes
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Separation anxiety or excessive clinginess
  • Problems with memory or concentration
  • Tantrums, physical aggression, or bed-wetting in younger children
  • Loss of interest in activities or relationships in older children
  • Increase in reckless behaviors or thoughts about death or suicide in older children and adolescents

This is just a small list, but as a parent or caregiver, you know your child best. If you notice anything out of the ordinary or concerning, don’t be afraid to check in with your child or reach out for help if you think your child needs it. 

Prevention and Treatment

If you notice signs of mental health issues in your child, early intervention is key. Talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns, and don’t be afraid to advocate for your child to get the care they need. 

While it’s important to look out for mental and emotional problems your children may be experiencing due to the pandemic, it’s also important to remember that young children and adolescents are quite resilient. With the right attention and treatment, they too can bounce back from all the challenges the epidemic brought our way.