The same guidelines that were introduced to protect us from COVID-19 have also negatively impacted many children’s emotional wellness. In my work as a child psychologist, I have witnessed a shared experience of grief among children in the last 1.5 years because of their inability to celebrate birthdays with friends, visit their grandparents or other family members, and engage in enjoyable activities in which they once participated routinely. When opportunities such as these are restricted, the feelings of sadness and loss that may ensue are normal, valid, and logical. Although some of the COVID-19 limits have been lifted, re-establishing your child’s baseline functioning and mood to be the same as they were prior to the pandemic may require time and effort. Fortunately, there are strategies that you can implement to prevent sadness’s persistence or a potential downward spiral.
An important first step is to examine the things that mattered most to your child before the pandemic across different life areas, such as relationships (with you, their friends, classmates, siblings, other family, teachers, coaches, etc.), school, hobbies, and daily responsibilities. This exploration will give you clues as to what gives your child’s life meaning, even at this young age, and suggest ways to build in activities within each life area that reflect your child’s values. Living a meaningful life protects us from prolonged periods of sadness and improves our general well-being. It is important to consider as many life areas as possible to make sure that you encourage balance in your child’s life.
Here are some guiding questions that may help in this quest:
- Enjoyment: What were some pleasurable activities in which your child used to participate? When did you notice that they were happiest? What activities would they most look forward to?
- Connection: Who was your child happiest with? Who do they feel like they could be themselves with? Who could they talk or hang out for hours at a time? Who would they most want to invite over?
- Mastery: What were some of the activities that made your child feel accomplished or productive? When did your child feel a sense of pride? What were some of the activities that led them to experience higher self-esteem?
Although there may still be restrictions on some activities, there may be creative ways to simulate them or even accomplish them, at least for the time being. For example, if your child enjoyed going to the movie theater, you could organize a movie night at home by asking them to select the movie and prepare popcorn and drinks. If you are not yet comfortable spending time with others outside the family, you could encourage telephone or computer dates, outside activities, or other ways of communicating that would foster connection.
After selecting activities that promise to offer enjoyment, connection, and a sense of mastery, begin scheduling them for your child. You may want to start slow, depending on your child’s current level of activity. If you have an older child or adolescent, you can certainly engage them in this discussion and planning.
Note: In more severe cases, sadness can persist over a prolonged period and be accompanied by symptoms like fatigue, irritability, and changes in sleep and appetite, and we consider the presence of depression. Other core symptoms of depression include a pervasive lack of enjoyment and motivation. In cases in which a child exhibits these symptoms, we recommend scheduling a consultation with a mental health professional promptly. It is also important to communicate with your child’s pediatrician.