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The COVID-19 Child Mental Health Pandemic

A psychologist shares about pandemic reduction measures and child mental health.

Key points

  • One of the most challenging parts of the pandemic for kids and teens has been isolation from friends.
  • Limited socialization opportunities also impact the ability of kids and teens to make and keep friends.
  • Kids need to be supported with effective skills to cope with uncertainty, crisis, and adversity.

While the physical effects of COVID-19 receive the lion's share of media attention, many questions have rightfully been raised about the potentially long-lasting psychological effects of the pandemic – particularly for our most vulnerable population: kids. Although empirical research on childhood mental health outcomes associated with masking, social distancing, and sheltering-in-place will take years to thoroughly study and publish, I spoke with an expert in childhood mental health to get her insight into these difficult questions.

Mandy Mount, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, educator, trainer, expert witness, and consultant. She served for 17 years as the founding Director of the UC Irvine CARE office and is now a Psychologist at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco while maintaining a private practice. Dr. Mount is also a director on the board of Tilly's Life Center, a youth-focused nonprofit in Orange County, California that seeks to teach social and emotional learning skills to help teens cope with stress, anxiety, negativity, isolation, and fear in a healthy, productive way. Dr. Mount is an expert on the effects of trauma on memory and has been featured in numerous articles and podcasts.

In terms of mental health, what aspects of living with the pandemic have been the most difficult for kids and teens?

Dr. Mount: One of the most challenging aspects of living with the pandemic for kids and teens has been isolation from friends and enriching connections with others. Typical opportunities for engagement through sports, activities, clubs, and play have been limited, but play and interaction with others are important parts of social development. During this time of additional challenge, kids have not had the same access that they might have had pre-pandemic to resources such as therapy and support programs.

While therapists and teachers have gone above and beyond to maintain a presence with children through zoom and other forms of technology, the two-dimensional space is limited by many factors including physical movement, privacy, non-verbal cues, and technology glitches. These interactions can also be exhausting in a different way than in-person interactions, as video chats demand additional attention and self-monitoring.

The security of schools offering a predictable schedule, food, and support at school has also been limited, replaced with uncertainty and unpredictability in many home environments, particularly those where parents or caregivers have struggled with pandemic-related challenges such as loss of employment or health concerns.

In what ways have virus-mitigation techniques impacted the social, emotional, and behavioral health of young children? How have you seen masking, social distancing, and staying at home challenge kids' development?

Dr. Mount: The impacts of virus-mitigating measures such as masking and physical distancing on children can vary widely, depending on the child and the environmental context. For example, masking requirements may create additional barriers for children with hearing impairments or developmental challenges such as autism, who rely on visual information to provide social cues or support understanding. Other children, such as those who have experienced abuse or experience social anxiety, may find that masks offer new opportunities to create more comfortable distance and boundaries.

Limited socialization opportunities also impact the ability of kids and teens to make and keep friends. Children’s relationships are often based principally on proximity, predictability and shared experiences. Maintaining relationships without these elements in place requires skills such as communication, follow-through, empathy, and initiative that are frequently acquired through socialization. Socialization opportunities afford children the chance to learn how to manage personal emotions, understand others' feelings and needs, share and take turns, set boundaries, build frustration tolerance, and engage in problem-solving. When children’s opportunities for socialization are limited, they will adapt but the long-term impacts may not be known.

In general, kids can be incredibly resilient when prepared with skills and tools to support them in coping and adjusting to change. Resilience is developed over time, and when supported to adapt through a significant period of change such as the pandemic, children can cultivate incredible flexibility and adaptability to support them in the future.

What would you say to parents who are worried about their child falling behind academically?

Dr. Mount: There may have been learning loss but there has been an important opportunity in this experience and many of those lessons can still be taught. Some of the more significant impacts have been on kids with disabilities or who come from lower socioeconomic status, who may have had less access to resources to offset disadvantages.

In your experience, have rates of panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, and/or self-harm risen among children and adolescents in the past 18 months? What can be done on the societal and individual levels to mitigate this?

Dr. Mount: Kids need to be supported with effective coping skills to cope with uncertainty, crisis, and adversity. They also need tools to be able to better understand and connect with who they are and develop empathy and communication skills to foster supportive relationships with others. [See here for more details].

How do you feel social media has helped and/or harmed the mental health of teenagers during the pandemic?

Dr. Mount: Social media in some ways offers teenagers a creative outlet, learning skills that will benefit them in careers and finding new ways of expressing themselves, but it also reduces the need to interact in person and results in increased screen time, which we know is detrimental to the mental health of teens. Increased reliance on feedback through social media to validate them has been shown to have a significant impact on self-esteem while increasing feelings of depression and hopelessness.

Trending activities such as monetizing oneself through the curation of a particular brand or image can create unrealistic expectations and a distorted understanding of reality for youth who don’t have enough life experience to have developed realistic understandings of the world. Parents must teach teenagers to use social media in moderation and to be effective consumers of the images and videos they see while engaging intentionally with real-life outside of phones, computers, and the internet. See: iGen by Dr. Jean Twenge.

What sort of resources are you aware of for parents of children who are struggling with withdrawal, isolation, and anxiety?

Dr. Mount: Programs that offer teens the opportunity to develop life skills, practice decision-making understand themselves, cultivate empathy and identify various coping strategies to manage change and adversity, can buffer the negative impacts of isolation and anxiety. These programs are especially important when taking into account the larger impact of pandemics on families and parents, or the multigenerational issues that may have passed down coping strategies that are less effective. These programs support not only the children but the entire family in developing resilience and learning to build healthier and happier future selves.

I serve on the Board of Directors of Tilly’s Life Center because I believe in the capacity of this program to assist kids and teens in developing critical social and emotional attributes necessary to offset the impacts of early adversity. Teens who participate in these programs learn about themselves and others while developing critical life skills.

The cognitive, emotional, and behavioral strategies practiced through participation in these programs offer protective factors that help to buffer the impacts of external stressors by strengthening internal resources, resulting in decreased anxiety and depression as well as increased happiness and self-esteem.