parent holds child in comforting embrace surrounded by plant and colorful collage
Design by Yunuen Bonaparte; Photography by Justin Paget/Getty Images

My daughter said sadly as we pulled into our parking space that she just wanted the Pandemic to be over.

I looked in my mirror.

For the past month, masks were optional in school. The gymnastics class went maskless.

Things were getting back to normal in my mind.

She said that she felt like everything was happy before. Now it is not. I just want things to be happy again.

My heart was not stable.

Our experience with the Pandemic has been mild. She has been at an in-person school since September 2020. No one has died. We have been fortunate.

I realized how much change she had gone through as she talked about the friends who had moved away and the pre-K teacher she still missed.

She was still mourning the life that had stopped in March 2020 while masks were off.

She is not the only one.

“One in 5 kids go on to develop a psychiatric disorder before they’re 18.”

— Janine Domingues, PhD

Kids of all ages are experiencing mental health symptoms, even ones who have had an easy time during the Pandemic so far.

On social media, on the playground, and in conversations among peers, my parent friends and I ask ourselves how our kids are doing as a result of all this change, uncertainty, and loss.

“Let’s see what the research says.”

In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association issued a joint statement declaring a national state of emergency in children’s mental health and calling on child advocates to make changes.

That same month, UNICEF warned in its flagship report that children and young people could be feeling the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health for years to come.

In March 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data that found 44 percent of high school students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the past year.

“You expect that as the world moves forward, things are getting better, and normalcy seems to be returning on so many fronts that our kids should just be moving with it and … returning to normal, too,” says Fatima Watt, PsyD, director of behavioral health sciences at Franciscan Children’s in Brighton, Massachussetts.

This has not been the case for many.

Watt says that humans are more complicated than that. More grownups are having a harder time in the Pandemic than before.

Watt says that even positive changes like dropping mask requirements can seem overwhelming to both adults and kids.

She says that even good excitement can bring anxiety and stress.

Clinical psychologist at Child Mind Institute, Janine Domingues, PhD, adds that many children had mental health challenges before the pandemic.

She says that 1 in 5 kids go on to develop a mental health problem before they are 18. Mental health was something we considered before the outbreak.

Domingues notes that the pandemic may have worsened issues in children who were already vulnerable.

Some children may have had a hard time with remote school. Increased symptoms of depression and anxiety could have been caused by this change.

Other kids, regardless of whether they grappled with mental health challenges before, may have enjoyed the slower pace of pandemic life and are now having a hard time with re-entry.

Even though things are back to normal, a transition back might be difficult for kids.

Global issues may have added more stress.

“During the pandemic, young people also experienced other challenges that may have affected their mental and emotional well-being,” said Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy in a 2021 report.

Murthy noted some factors.

  • Police violence against black people.
  • Violence against Asian Americans was linked to carbon 19
  • gun violence
  • Political dialogue is becoming more and more divided.
  • Climate change concerns are growing.
  • Emotions ran high as misinformation was emotionally charged.

That is a lot for anyone to deal with.

“When parents sense something is ‘off’ or wrong, they’re usually right.”

Helen Egger is a doctor.

How can you tell if your child is having a normal amount of anxiety or if they need additional support?

“Experts say that one way to gauge how much your child’s mood changes are affecting their functioning is to assess how much they are affecting their friends.”

“Domingues says to look for signs that last more than a few weeks, occur every day, or are impacting your child’s level of engagement in normal activities.”

She encourages parents to get a referral to a mental health professional when it is convenient. This can help your child get the support they need to get back on track.

An online screening tool like the one developed by Mental Health America can be helpful in assessing your child’s current mood and providing additional points of concern to bring up to a pediatrician.

Your sixth sense can help you.

“I strongly believe that parents are the experts on their children,” says Helen Egger, MD, chief medical and scientific officer of digital kids’ mental health platform Little Otter. “When parents sense something is ‘off’ or wrong, they’re usually right.”

There are some things to look out for.

  • Change in sleep routine.
  • Change in eating habits.
  • Change in activity level
  • They used to like hobbies that interest them.
  • There were meltdowns and temper tantrums.
  • inability to self-soothe
  • nightmares
  • It is a worry or anxiety.
  • Talk about death has increased.
  • negative self-talk, like, “I’m ugly, I hate myself, I’m stupid”
  • The behavior is negatively impacting the family or friends.
  • School performance decline.

“We need to be shifting the way that we think and opening up the door so that the next generation feels much more comfortable talking about mental health.”

— Fatima Watt, PsyD

There are a number of strategies you can use to help your child navigate difficult times.

These include:

  • “It’s a good idea to talk about feelings in a safe place.”
  • reminding them they are resilient.
  • They are being taught to embrace what they can control.
  • acknowledging their losses.
  • They were validating their feelings.
  • Checking in on a regular basis.

Create safe space to talk about feelings

It can be hard to know just what to say when it comes to talking to your kids about mental health, butit’s an important conversation to have.

Watt says that children want to know that it is okay to talk about things. We need to change the way we think and talk about mental health so that the next generation feels more comfortable talking about it.

The doors may have been opened by the Pandemic.

Sixty-seven percent of teens surveyed agreed with the statement, ‘I am hopeful that I will adapt and rebound from the challenges of the pandemic.’

A 2021 report from the Child Mind Institute found that 42 percent of teens say the pandemic has increased the number of conversations they have around mental health. This trend was particularly significant among Hispanic and Black teenagers, the report found.

Watt suggests that you ask how they are feeling, just as you would if you noticed they were hurt.

She says if your child looked like they had a stomach ache, you would ask if they were ok. Mental health should not be considered differently than physical health.

Make ‘resiliency’ a household word

Kids and grownups can be resilient.

A report from the Child Mind Institute found that 67 percent of teens agreed with the statement, “I am hopeful that I will adapt and rebound from the challenges of the pandemic.”

Teens who believed their mental health had worsened during the Pandemic were correct. The authors suggest that this may be an example of the mental health immune system, an innate resilience in our brains to bounce back.

Embrace what you can control

Domingues believes that it is helpful to give kids the space to control what they can.

She says that the Pandemic made everyone feel a loss of control. Parents can help ground kids by reminding them what they have control over.

It could be as simple as what to wear today or what you are going to do.

Domingues says that this can give kids agency around the things they can enjoy.

“You can start to find small ways to feel OK about now.”

— Janine Domingues, PhD

Acknowledge loss, validate feelings

It is a part of enjoying here and now that we reflect on what we have lost in the past year.

Domingues says that it is okay to be sad that things are different for parents and kids alike.

She says there is room to hold both and to feel normal. You can find ways to feel better about yourself now.

Keep checking in

Watt says to start check-ins with your kids when you say “Let\’s talk”, since it\’s not a good opening line for teenagers.

Give them space to come to you.

She says that it is a dance of not wanting to pressure or force them to open up. You want to let them know that you are available.

This may mean trying a few different ways to connect with your child.

Watt says that if we give kids the chance to talk and share with other trusted adults in their life and their community, that can be helpful.

“A checkup with your child’s doctor is a good first line of defense. They can rule out any potential medical causes and have a referral list within the community.”

They can help you put your child\’s symptoms into context to say, “This is typical, I\’m not so worried.” Watt says that there are some strategies that can help. These behaviors are of concern. Here is what we can do.

You may find support resources.

  • Local cultural centers.
  • Guidance counselors are in the school.
  • religious institutions
  • in-person or online support groups
  • in-person or online therapy

There are a number of treatment options for children and families.

These include:

Teens may find like-minded peers beneficial.

“Adolescence is a special time where teenagers think the world revolves [around] them,” Watt says. “That’s developmentally appropriate, but that heightens their level of self-consciousness.”

She suggests that they be told that lots of teenagers are feeling that way. Support groups can be helpful.

For instance, Mental Health America offers a directory of peer support programs organized by mental health condition.

Jen’s story

Jen S. noticed that her daughter seemed down when school started.

“She wasn’t sure if it was her being a teenager or if there was something bigger going on.”

Jen’s daughter coped well with quarantine, playing with her younger siblings and participating in family outings, and returned to school without incident. That’s why Jen was surprised when things came to a head sophomore year.

She found it tough to get more than “Everything’s fine” answers from her daughter, but discovered she would open up more over text — even if she was right upstairs.

“I learned she was just as confused as I was about how she was feeling,” Jen says. “Nothing was ‘wrong,’ but she felt awful.”

Jen reached out to her community, which led her daughter to start attending a youth group run through their church.

Jen says it is kids across different schools and social groups. They talk about what is happening and they can work on volunteering and projects, which can make them feel less helpless when the news is crazy.

“Having a safe space to talk with peers and interacting with adults who facilitate conversation has helped Jen’s daughter feel less isolated.”

Jen says meeting different kids has helped her daughter.

“In some ways, I think the pandemic had trapped her at the end of eighth grade,” she adds. “Adding a new activity to the mix, especially one that supports talking honestly with peers, let her figure out who she was now.”

Kids all over the world have been through a lot in the last few years.

No matter what is happening in the news or in your home, help is available.

Knowing the signs to look for, being armed with strategies to cope, and knowing where to go when you need support can help you and your family navigate difficult times.