Parents should monitor impact of coronavirus on their children’s mental health, too

By Dr. Paul Simeone

The stock market is in disarray. People are losing their jobs or having their hours cut. Supermarket inventory can’t keep up with panic buying. Retail stores and restaurants are limiting their operating hours or closing altogether.

As adults, the coronavirus is introducing unwanted stresses in our lives.

Imagine what COVID-19 is doing to our children.

School closures also mean the cancelation of sports, clubs and after-school activities – all of the things that children enjoy. To top it off, children’s social media feeds are filled with images of empty shelves at the grocery store, politics and memes that really aren’t meant for a child’s eyes.

It’s left children at home, albeit safe, with their parents and siblings. The situation isn’t yet a quarantine, but it’s pretty close. Heeding recommendations of government and health officials means children can’t hang out with friends, eat at their favorite restaurant or play a game of hide-and-go-seek in the neighborhood.

Children thrive on routines and a sense of normalcy, and the coronavirus has shattered all of that.

Although the virus poses a serious concern for our physical health, the threat to our mental health is just as important.

Impacts from the coronavirus can trigger a variety of mental health concerns among adults, including drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, depression and changes in sleep and eating patterns. Among children, boredom, irritability, acting out, headaches and lack of motivation are signs of concern.

In Southwest Florida, it’s estimated that 46,000 children will suffer from some form of mental illness at some point in their lifetime. As days of coronavirus-related disruptions turn into weeks, children will be going stir crazy, likely exhibiting signs that their mental health is taking a tumble. Parents should make their children’s mental health a priority, paying close attention to:

  • Diet: A well-balanced diet featuring plenty of fruits and vegetables is medically proven to improve physical and mental wellbeing. Foods with vitamin B, iron, omega-3 and zinc are among a long list of healthy foods that positively impact the body and brain.
  • Exercise: Coronavirus isn’t a hurricane, and it’s still safe to venture outside as long as you practice “social distancing.” That means family walks or bike rides through the neighborhood, tossing around a ball or yard games are OK. Stretching is another way to keep the body active.
  • Technology as a communication tool: Physical isolation doesn’t mean total isolation. Children can use Facetime, Skype or social media to stay in touch with their classmates, friends, teammates and family.
  • Limit technology: Although technology keeps us connected, as noted above, it should have a limit. Too much social media or news can amplify worries, fears and stress. Pay attention to what your kids are hearing and seeing online.
  • Separation: Being together 24/7 isn’t always the best solution. Depending on their age and maturity level, parents should allow children to do their own thing once in a while. Plus, a little alone time never hurts for adults, either.

It’s rare that children are secretly wishing they were back in school. This is likely one of those times. Talk to your children about the coronavirus – not a formal, separate conversation, but just a casual chat at the dinner table. It’s important to separate facts from rumors, alarming messages and false information. Doing so will go a long way toward decreasing children’s anxiety and fear.

About the Author

Paul Simeone, Ph.D., is vice president of mental and behavioral health for Lee Health.

Kids' Minds Matter Advocate Dr. Paul Simeone