A young girl lies on an illustration of moving gears.
Keeping kids happy and mentally healthy is a key priority during the pandemic. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Having plenty of open communication.

Keeping a daily routine.

Finding safe ways to connect with others.

These are just a few of the things adults can do to help kids maintain good mental health despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And if you’re wondering whether the pandemic is taking a toll on kids’ mental health—the short answer is unfortunately yes, said Brittany Barber Garcia, PhD, a pediatric psychologist with Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

She’s seen it in her own practice and among her colleagues locally and across the country.

The specific trends she’s observed include kids who were fine before the pandemic now experiencing anxiety, depression and mood disorders. She has seen worsening symptoms in kids who experienced mental health challenges before the pandemic, and she’s seen younger children needing mental health services.

“Kids are often described as being highly resilient and able to cope with many changes that come their way,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “That is true, but realistically those resiliency resources have been spent. They have relied on those very heavily.”

One year after most kids started to feel the effects of the pandemic, many of them need help.

The good news is that help is available.

“Do we know that most kids will be able to get through it? Yes,” she said. “But do we also know that it’s getting harder and harder for them as this pandemic goes on? Yes.”

Dr. Barber Garcia urges families to seek out services for their kids if they need them.

Start with your pediatrician or family doctor’s office. Insurance companies can help as well by providing the names of in-network providers. Providers are willing to work with families for virtual or in-person meetings depending on their specific needs.

Parents and other adults can also help their children at home. Here are some of her tips:

Maintain as much routine as you can

Whether it’s canceled activities, needing to quarantine at home or attending virtual school rather than in-person school, many kids’ routines have been turned upside down. And many are being forced to adapt quickly when new changes come up.

Dr. Barber Garcia said kids will benefit if you keep any parts of the daily routine that you can when those changes throw you a curve ball. Sleep and meal schedules, regular exercise and other daily consistency is good for all ages.

Check in on your kids’ emotions often

Regular check-ins are critical to getting through the pandemic, she said. It’s important that they have a safe place to express how they’re feeling.

Ask your children how they’re feeling about specific things. Ask them if their bodies ever feel strange—like their heart racing, feeling shaky or their skin getting clammy.

“Sometimes those physical changes that come along with emotions are easier for kids to tap into,” she said.

Encourage them to name and describe how they’re feeling. Then offer whatever reassurance you can.

“It’s OK to accept an emotion as valid and also to remind yourself that it is not forever,” she said. “This pandemic is not going to last forever. And the emotion that you are having about it at this moment will not last forever either.”

Also, simple redirection to help your kids get their mind off specific worries can be helpful. Go for a walk, do an activity together, suggest they take a bath or a shower to unwind, take a drive together, video call a friend or family member—whatever can help your child gain a new perspective in that moment.

Help them find safe ways to socially interact

“The effects of social isolation have been well documented,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “We’re aware that human beings are meant to be in community.”

The pandemic has socially isolated many kids, particularly those who have been in virtual school for a year.

“For kids, that connection is even more important because this is such a critical time in their development and they are used to leaning on their peers,” she said.

Dr. Barber Garcia urged parents to find ways, either virtually or in person safely, for kids to connect with others. Those options will increase now that spring and warmer weather is coming, she said.

She also urges parents as they weigh the risk and benefit of activities to consider their child’s mental health as well as physical health.

Aim to educate

Educate your kids about the facts related to their worries, in an age-appropriate way.

“Anxiety likes to live in the place of taking what’s true and stretching it into a place that’s not true,” Dr. Barber Garcia said.

She encourages children and families to go on what she calls “fact-finding missions.”

“What are the facts about this feeling you’re having?” she said. “Sometimes anxiety will tell us something that’s not really true.”

So, for instance, if your child is fearful of getting sick, or of a family member getting sick, remind them of the facts from medical professionals.

“Remind them of the things you are doing as a family to help keep them safe and that we know they are helpful,” she said. “We know these things will reduce your risk.”

Watch for warning signs

Dr. Barber Garcia also urges everyone to be vigilant about warning signs of serious mental health problems, including suicide.

“We all want to think that it’s something that’s not going to happen in our communities, our schools and our homes because it’s too scary,” she said.

Dr. Barber Garcia said calls and texts to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are up dramatically since 2019—for youth and adults.

She said parents and other adults should be aware of signs that a child in their life might be having increased thoughts of suicide, including worsening of mood—sadness, irritability and anger—or withdrawal from family and friends.

They might also show changes in eating or sleeping habits or start to display unusually severe, violent or rebellious behavior or drastic personality changes.

Remember that help is available.

“If parents are experiencing concern for any reason, because they know their kids best, they should reach out and ask for help,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “We’re here.”