COVID, Kids and Mental Health: What Parents Need to Know

By Nancy Flory Published on March 27, 2021

Depression. Anxiety. Stress. Confusion. The effect that COVID-19 has had on kids’ mental health is huge, according to Kathy Koch, PhD. “I’m actually more concerned about that for our children than I am the physical effects of the virus,” Koch told The Stream recently.

Koch, an author, speaker, former teacher and professor, founded Celebrate Kids, a nonprofit dedicated to enabling parents to make sure their kids thrive now by helping them discover and work on their core needs and identity. Koch is also on the faculty at Summit Ministries.

Koch pointed out that the physical effect of the virus is real, but the pandemic has caused even more damage in terms of kids’ mental health. For example, intentional self-harm incidents by 13-18 year olds in the Northeast U.S. are up by 334%, according to a FAIR Health study. The study also found an increase in anxiety and major depressive disorder, up 94% and 84% respectively, and adjustment disorders are up 90%.

Education in a Pandemic

A big part of the problem is how education is delivered during the coronavirus. “I think the lack of consistency is confusing,” said Koch. “One day the school is open and the next day it’s not. One day their teacher is there and the next day that teacher’s gone for two weeks and they have to adjust to a substitute.” The kids are frustrated and angry. “I think, frankly, they have a right to be angry.” Koch doesn’t envy those who make hard decisions. “My heart goes out to good administrators and teachers who are trying to do the very best they can.”

The other piece of education is that, with so many at home, they aren’t getting the time to socialize with other kids. “God creates us to be social,” Koch explained. “We learn well together in a typical school situation or even a typical homeschool. … Children become wiser when they get to listen to other people’s perspectives.”

Teachers help children learn through discussions, not just paper assignments, but Koch said that isn’t happening much right now. With masks and social distancing requirements, there’s less interaction — and that can be harmful emotionally, socially and intellectually. “We’re not going to really know for sure until kids get back into a full-time situation with qualified teachers how much academic loss has occurred.”

Choosing to Quit

Koch is also concerned about the dropout rate and how the pandemic will impact students. While the dropout rate has been “terrible for years,” Koch believes that it will get worse during the pandemic. “I’m concerned that some children will decide that they don’t need school in the traditional sense.” As students increasingly get help from technology like Google or Siri, some kids may believe that they don’t really need to go to school. “There’s bullying in the hallway. There are kids who raise their hand and never get called on. I mean, school has never been a socially safe place for some kids. So now maybe they’re going to decide, ‘yeah, I don’t need that.’ … And if they choose to quit because it’s unpleasant or hard or lonely, they may never develop into the person that God intended for them to be.”

The Problem With Technology

While technology has allowed kids to stay in school, it can also be a problem. Kids aren’t just addicted to the technology, they’re addicted to the lie that they deserve to be happy all the time because technology has taught them they can be happy all the time. “They can ‘x’ out of a game they might lose, they can Google a quick answer. They’ve got all the information they’ll ever need in the device. They’re given choices. It’s now about them. It’s easy. They can isolate if they want to. And so, all that is really potentially very dangerous.” She adds that using technology obsessively can “mess with” kids’ minds and hearts and disrupt character development.

Watch for Warning Signs

Koch said that parents should watch for warning signs that something isn’t quite right. If a child chooses to isolate, that is a red flag. “I would worry that they may be hiding something or they’re apathetic about life in general and they don’t want to invest in other people, because let’s be honest, it’s hard, right? Sometimes it’s easier to be alone. You don’t have to please anybody but yourself.”

Another warning sign is if the child has what Koch calls a “critical spirit.” A critical spirit, especially if they haven’t always been critical, could indicate stress and depression. It also indicates a lack of flexibility. “We’ve got to be flexible to handle all that’s going on.” 

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Parents should also look for signs that their child is harming themselves, like cutting. “Are they always in long sleeves? Are they always wearing turtlenecks, even when it’s warm out? Those can be signs that they’re hiding some physical effect of that.”

Kids who lack resiliency can’t bounce back quickly from discouragement or disappointment. They won’t take risks because they can’t afford to be wrong. They become perfectionistic. If kids “freak out” after making a mistake, especially if that’s not normal, that is a warning sign. “I think isolation, the lack of teachability, critical spirit — those are things that should not be a part of a child’s life, even a teenager’s.”

What Parents Should Know

Parents should know that kids have fears about the pandemic. “Not necessarily fear that they will get sick,” said Koch. “Fear that grandma will die is real, fear that I may never see my cousins again, or my stepdad.” They could also have fear that their lives will never be the same. “Will I ever get a vacation? Will I ever play soccer again?” When COVID first started to spread, children did not realize that the pandemic was new for everyone. “And all of a sudden, children began to understand that this has never happened before.” Koch added that the newness of COVID created additional fears. “Well, does that mean the world is getting to be a more difficult place?”

Grief and Loss

“We’ve got to help children grieve. I don’t want them defined by loss. That’s not healthy.” When Koch speaks at a graduation, she tells the students not to allow people to call them the quarantine generation. “Don’t be defined by loss. It’s real. And I grieve it for you and with you.” We must help children understand that the world isn’t fair. That sometimes challenging things happen. Koch recommends that parents talk with their children about how this, too, will pass. “We don’t just talk about the virus and the challenges that are going on, but we also make sure that our kids remember their past joy and that there is a season coming” where they will be able to talk with grandma or play soccer. 

What Parents Can Do

Parents should talk with their children — not only about what’s happening with the coronavirus, but spend time having a meaningful conversation about life in general. Koch has provided conversation starters on her Celebrate Kids, Inc. Facebook and Instagram websites. Parents can use them as starting points for diving into discussions with their children. 

Parents can also find other ways to spend time with their children. Koch suggests working a puzzle, playing card or board games, going for a walk or serving others together. “What if we celebrated the family and looked for opportunities to be together on purpose with purpose?”

Koch told the true story of a father and his young son who donated their used shoes to a homeless shelter. While they realized how important their used shoes were to the homeless, it was also time well spent. “That’s a bonding moment that happened at a time when the family chose to put others first, which is a very healthy thing to do at any time, but especially now when the needs are great. It wouldn’t have happened except the family was a family in the moment. And I don’t think that son and dad will ever forget that. I think it changed them.”


Nancy Flory is an associate editor at The Stream. You can follow her @NancyFlory3, and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.

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