Without a clear end in sight for the social isolation wrought by the pandemic, some child development experts are considering whether long periods of isolation might lead to more profound impacts on kids’ mental health. According to one recent study, the longer our kids spend in social isolation, the more likely they are to experience mental health symptoms. These findings come from a new meta-analysis that considered several decades of data from over 60 peer-reviewed journal articles, focused on social isolation and mental health for children between ages 4 and 21.
One alarming finding from the study is that social isolation and loneliness were associated with increased risk of future mental health problems — like depression and anxiety — for up to 9 years after isolation. These findings were true for children, adolescents and young adults, with some evidence that loneliness was more strongly associated with elevated depression symptoms in girls and with elevated social anxiety in boys. The authors also shared that adolescents are at particular risk of high rates of depression, and in some cases, anxiety, during and even after periods of prolonged isolation.
Keep in mind, though, that social isolation is not going to cause loneliness in all kids, and that not all loneliness is going to be problematic (in fact, boredom can actually lead to creativity). The researchers found that short stints of loneliness are less likely to be associated with depression and anxiety than longer-lasting loneliness. The good news is that there are ways we can be proactive about the risks of social isolation. We can help our kids develop self-awareness about the signs of loneliness and depression and help them build coping strategies to use when they feel sad, anxious or disconnected from peers and loved ones.
A doctor offers tips
In a recent conversation organized by ParentsTogether with mom and activist Natalie Portman, Laura Markham, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist at Columbia University, discussed behaviors to look for from kids that might indicate a problem. She also shared some specific ways for parents to protect their kids from some of the mental health risks of isolation.
Dr. Markham reminded us that it’s normal (and a sign of age-appropriate learning) for kids to “fall apart and get it back together again.” However, if kids stay in a stage of stress or anxiety for more than a couple of weeks, it could be a sign of something that needs attention. She urged parents to notice if your child has less of an appetite or is eating far more than usual, or if they’re having a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep or are having nightmares. These are often signs of heightened anxiety.
Dr. Markham offered some simple, unexpected strategies for reducing anxiety:
- Place each hand gently on your upper arm on the opposite side (so your arms are crossed), and run your hands all the way down your arms while taking deep breaths—repeat as needed. This reduces the body’s stress hormones.
- Give yourself a hug. Wrap your arms around yourself and hold onto your shoulders while breathing slowly to signal to your body that you are safe. This reduces the fight, flight or freeze impulse and helps us calm down.
Other ways to care for our kids’ mental health during the pandemic include:
- Make sure you’re providing your kids with physical touch, especially younger children. As best as you’re able, be there for them and give extra cuddles if your kid needs them. (And no guilt if they seem to have regressed…this is a hard time!)
- Making efforts to stick to a routine can pay off in the long run. Keep a schedule of what your kids’ days at home will look like in a place everyone can see, and help set the boundaries your kiddo needs to stay focused on one thing at a time.
- Lean into the parenting basics of good nutrition and a consistent bedtime, for them and for you.
- Find unique ways to celebrate milestones. From birthdays to graduations, we’re all finding new ways to celebrate important events. They make kids feel connected to friends and community, so finding a way to acknowledge milestones big and small can help counteract loneliness, even if you have to do so virtually.
- Come up with new ways to socialize. Kids are understandably having a tough time being so restricted in how they can see friends, and giving them some control back can go a long way. Our 3-step going out guide can show you how to create a socialization plan that’s both fun and safe, so you and your child both feel better.
Don’t forget about your own needs
Parenting burnout is real, and we can’t pour from an empty cup. Try these tips from Dr. Markham to take care of yourself, so you can better take care of your kids:
- Give yourself grace. Remember that you don’t have to be perfect at parenting right now.
- Move your body every day. Exercise is essential to mental health (the research is definitive on this), so if you can’t leave the house, crank up the music and have a family dance party.
- Include guided meditation and relaxation in your day, either after kids are in bed or in the morning if you wake up before your kids do. The research shows this can lower your adrenaline and return you to calm. You can download a mindfulness or meditation app (e.g. Headspace or Calm) for free.
- Get into nature. Research shows that nature has a way of restoring us and it even has measurable effects on our immune systems. It can be as simple as getting your kids outside to run around, but there are many ways to enjoy nature as a family, even if you’re social distancing.
For more expert advice on how to help your kids navigate difficult emotions during the pandemic, check out our interview with Rebecca Weston, LCSW-R, JD, a Clinical Social Work/Therapist in New York City. She offers more signs to look for at each age to know if your child is feeling loneliness, grief or anxiety, and specific tips for what to say to kids who are struggling—with emphasis on how to acknowledge their feelings.