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How parents and caretakers can support children’s mental health, through the pandemic and beyond.
My nine-year-old daughter recently told me she wanted to curl into a ball and roll away. She also often complains of tummy aches, for seemingly no reason (anxiety in children often shows up as belly aches). Like many other kids, she has not physically been in school for more than a year. She misses her friends and her teachers. She’s experienced one disappointment after another, and real-world worries have infiltrated her innocent bubble. Her experience is not unique.
Children are some of the true heroes of the pandemic; they’ve shown us grace, patience, and resilience. But they are suffering too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), emergency room visits for mental health-related issues increased by 24 percent for children ages 5-11 and 31 percent for children ages 12-17 in 2020.1 Even before the pandemic, children and teens were experiencing skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, but the pandemic has compounded the problem. Many of the things that are integral to children’s and teens’ mental wellbeing have vanished over the last year and a half—being with their peers, feeling safe, taking part in social/extracurricular activities, spending time with extended family—and while we seem to be moving toward a semblance of normality, the mental effects could linger. Here’s what we can do to support our kids’ mental health right now, and for the long term.
A global pandemic has made it all too easy to cave to our kids’ requests for unhealthy food (guilty as charged), but a healthy diet is absolutely critical for mental wellness. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE examined the diets and mental health of nearly 3,000 adolescents between the ages of 11 and 18 over the course of two years and then again two years later. Even when accounting for socio-economic status, gender, and physical activity, the kids with healthier diets had better mental health. The researchers qualified a healthy diet as two or more servings of fruit per day, four or more servings of veggies per day, and eating food from home versus restaurant/fast food. The unhealthy diet included frequently eating cookies, chips, french fries, candy, soft drinks, and food bought outside of the home. The researchers also found that when the kids’ diets improved, so did their mental health, while reductions in diet quality were associated with “declining psychological functioning” over the follow up period.2
Because all parents know that it’s impossible to follow a perfect diet all the time (and because there are just some nutrients we can’t get optimal amounts of from food), supplementing with a quality kids’ multivitamin will round out any nutritional gaps in your child’s diet. In addition to a multivitamin, the following supplements help support mental wellness:
Kids and teens were already spending a lot of time on screens before the pandemic, but with distance/remote learning the new norm, screen time has gone through the roof, and it’s not good for our children’s mental health. A study published in 2018 investigated how screen time affected the mental health of kids between the ages of two and 17, and confirmed what we already knew—as screen time increases, mental wellness decreases. Among the 40,337 kids the researchers evaluated, those that spent more than an hour on screens each day (including phones, computers, video games, and TV) were determined to have lower self-control, were more easily distracted, had less emotional stability, and were more difficult to care for. Among 14 to 17-yearolds, those that had seven or more hours of screen time each day were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety and to have been treated by a mental health professional or taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue in the past year.7 Seven hours may seem like a lot, but it’s the average time most teens spend on screens (eight to 12-year-olds spend a little less, at 4 hours and 44 minutes daily).8 We know that screens are never going away, but as the saying goes, everything in moderation.
While our kids are spending endless hours on their screens, they are spending virtually no time playing outside. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, on average, children spend less time playing outside than any other generation—only four to seven minutes a day. That may have shifted for some kids during the pandemic, in which escaping outdoors has been one of the only changes of scenery we have been afforded, but in relation to screen time, there is a lot of room for improvement. The connection between nature and our mental wellbeing is so striking that scientists have begun to study it, and the research proves just how important outdoor time is for kids (and adults too), with children who spend more time outdoors tending to be happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors. One recent study found that spending 20 to 30 minutes a day outside reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol by 21 percent. The time of day or specific setting didn’t matter—yard, park, or other green spaces all led to a cortisol drop. Other recent research has found that more nature exposure in childhood leads to better mental health in adulthood.9 10 11
Kids and teens have missed out on so many special events and activities in the last year… they have a reason to feel sad and frustrated. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard regarding this is to normalize (and expect) sadness. Let them know it’s okay to feel sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed, etc. and support them through it. In that same vein, giving them the gift of presence goes a long way in nourishing their mental health. Sometimes all our children need is a little extra attention, some one-on-one time with their parents, or just a good old-fashioned hug.