How to support your child’s mental health through the pandemic
During these changing and challenging times, you may be worried about your child or teen’s mental health and well-being, especially as the pandemic persists over time. Many children and youth have struggled to adjust to all of the changes that have happened over the past many months as a result of COVID-19. So, you may notice that from time to time your child or teen may seem worried, sad, lonely, or unsettled. They may be confused or angry that usual activities continue to be disrupted or they may be disappointed to miss something that they were looking forward to for a long time. Many students are concerned that they have missed important schoolwork and feel nervous about what will happen this school year. All of these feelings are to be expected at this uncertain time.
And we know that some students and families/caregivers have experienced significant hardship and loss throughout the pandemic. Perhaps your child or teen has had more to carry than others, and you wonder if they are okay.
How can you help your child or teen to maintain good mental health as the pandemic evolves? How will you know if your child or teen is experiencing a mental health problem that requires more support? We have prepared some answers to these questions below.
Sometimes you may need help. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use emergency, contact a crisis line, call an ambulance, or go to the emergency room of your local hospital. Even in these unusual times, it is important to get the immediate help that you need. There are people ready and available to help.
Note: If you visit an emergency room, you should be prepared to participate in “active screening” for COVID-19 as part of a standard protocol at this time. You will also be asked to wear a mask. Try to stay calm knowing that this is just standard practice, and an example of how caring professionals are providing support.
If you are not sure if it is an emergency, or just need to talk through the situation, consider reaching out to Telehealth Ontario at 1-866-797-0000, or the distress line or mobile crisis team in your area. See the listing below for additional numbers.
Youth-focused mental health resources hub
We’ve partnered with Jack.org and Kids Help Phone to create an online hub of COVID-19 youth-focused mental health resources to help youth take care of themselves and each other. Please share widely with the young people in your life.
Questions and answers
As parents/caregivers and family members, the best thing we can do is maintain communication with our children and teens and to be patient and understanding.
We’ve prepared the following tips to give you some ideas to keep in mind. Of course, you know your child best, so consider these tips based on your own family/household situation.
For Younger Children
- Stay calm. Children look to us for how to respond to stressful situations. Remember you being calm, helps your child to remain calm. Think about ways to manage the stress you might be carrying (talking with a friend or an Elder, going for a walk, focusing on gratitude, etc.) so that you can be at your best in supporting your children. If you are feeling overwhelmed or extremely worried, pause and take a breath before speaking with your child.
- Keep it simple. The pandemic, related public health restrictions, and instances of racism, oppression and loss can feel overwhelming and complex. There is a lot of information coming at us at once. You can help your child by breaking it down into more manageable parts and focusing on the things that are most important to them. For example, reminding them that they are safe, explaining that cancellations are happening to help keep them and others in the community safe from the virus, telling them that by washing their hands regularly and wearing their mask, they are helping everyone, etc. Having some language to help them to understand the situation, that you can repeat in calm ways, can help.
- Listen. Let your child talk through how they’re feeling. Acknowledge their emotions and help to label them. You can say, “Yes, I can see you’re feeling worried” or “it is okay to feel angry that you can’t see grandma right now.” Some children may not easily talk about their feelings or have the vocabulary to identify and label different feelings. If you’re noticing different behaviour, you can say. “I wonder if you might be feeling worried, or sad?” and, “what might help you feel better?”
- Keep information age-appropriate. Answer your child’s questions about the pandemic and related public health restrictions as factually as possible but keep responses age-appropriate. See the Additional resources section below for links to factual information sources about COVID-19. Check your school board communications to learn about safety protocols and procedures in the school.
- Limit exposure. Avoid listening to or watching news coverage about the pandemic with young children around. Avoid having adult conversations about your own worries in front of children. Encourage older children to be aware of their social media use and to take breaks from this. Help them to think critically about what they are reading on-line, sorting myths from facts.
- Try to keep a flexible routine for your child. While learning from home, many families used a regular, but relaxed, time for waking and sleeping, and perhaps for meals and snacks. You may have established a rhythm and figured out what worked for your family or household, and what did not. This school year, you can draw on these discoveries to make the most of whatever is to come next.
- Be patient and understanding. You may notice behaviour changes in your child during more stressful times associated with the pandemic or other things. Children react differently to changes in routine and stress. They may become frustrated more easily, or more emotional, or engage in things they did at a much younger age. Try to be understanding with your child, as they may just need more reassurance and calm during this time.
For Teens, in addition to several of the above tips, the following may be helpful:
- Be patient and understanding. Think back to when you were a teen and how important your social connections were (and likely still are!). Teens are dealing with less social contact and cancelled events. This can be upsetting. Try to be patient and understanding – try not to minimize their feelings. Instead, listen, validate, and express compassion.
- Encourage balance. Some teens may turn to streaming platforms, social media, or gaming as a distraction from the day-to-day reality of the pandemic—this is to be expected and you may also find you’re looking for distractions yourself. Teens may also feel very worried about school performance and may spend extra time on a computer learning on-line or completing work. However, too much screen time can have a negative impact on mental health. Taking breaks is helpful. Try to encourage regular sleep habits, good nutrition, and time outdoors when possible. You could invite your teen to get outside for daily walks with you, encourage playing board games, or to do some cooking together. Balancing screen time with other activities helps with wellness. Please see the info sheet Helping Your Child Manage Digital Technology for more information.
- Pause before talking. With so much news coverage and talk about COVID-19, and other disturbing events associated with racism and oppression that raise up difficult emotions, over exposure is very possible. You can provide a break for your teen by not discussing the situation in front of them. At the same time, it is important to create opportunities for reflecting on and processing the events unfolding around them. For example, many families/households have taken time to reflect on the unmarked graves of children outside residential schools in Canada, and the trauma and grief associated with this. When your teen raises issues of concern to them, create the space for them to explore their thoughts and feelings, and offer words of support by validating their feelings.
- Listen and provide reassurance when you can. Some teens may be worried about the health of their friends and family members, about the spread of the pandemic locally and globally, or about lost class time and their ability to complete courses. If they express concerns to you, listen to their concerns and try to provide reassurance. You can talk about how measures are in place to keep people safe, how you’ve prepared as a family/household, and how life will return to a new normal. For teens who are concerned about lost class time and completing courses, reassure them that school staff understand and appreciate their concern. Tell them more information will come and you’ll work through it together.
- Affirm your child’s feelings. Rather than moving quickly to trying to solve the problem, allow time to just listen so your child can fully express their feelings. Listen and help them to put words to their feelings. For example, if your teen finds the words to say they are feeling sad, and can say a little about what is bothering them, you might reflect back something like, “Yes, that makes sense, of course you feel sad right now, because you can’t spend time with your friends the way you used to, and because you are feeling trapped at home, and because you missed out on so much that you were looking forward to.” Showing that you really understand helps you to move forward as a team.
Sometimes changes in behaviour or emotions are a sign that students need more support for their mental health.
Here are some signs to watch for:
- Changes in behaviour or emotions that seem out of proportion even with the current circumstances (e.g., angry outbursts, depressed mood, sense of panic).
- The changes last most of the day, every day.
- The changes last for a sustained period of time (e.g., more than a week).
- The changes seem to interfere with your child’s or teen’s thoughts, feelings, or daily functioning – for example, they may not do activities they normally enjoy, they’re crying more than usual, or they may not interact with you as much as they usually do.
- Your child or teen tells you they’re feeling sad or anxious a lot.
- If your child expresses thoughts of hurting them self or engages in suicidal behavior, seek help from a mental health professional immediately (see emergency protocols above and below).
- You may wish to review the info sheet on Noticing Mental Health Concerns for Your Child or WITH CARE – How do you know if you should be concerned about your child/teen’s mental health and well-being?
If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, the first step is to talk with your child or teen. Here are some tips on how to talk to your child or teen when you feel concerned they may be struggling with a mental health problem.
If they tell you anything that makes you worried (e.g., thoughts of suicide, overwhelming anxiety, self-injurious behaviour like cutting) reassure your child that you are glad they told you and you will help them find the right professional to talk to, and you will be there for them throughout the journey.
Children’s Mental Health Ontario has prepared tips on talking to anxious children about COVID-19.
If you or your child or teen is experiencing a mental health emergency, call an ambulance or go to the emergency room in your local hospital.
Every Ontario school board has a Mental Health Leader who can provide information about local services that may be available to you. You can find your Mental Health Leader on our website here. Here are some other suggestions.
- Children and teens can speak with a counsellor 24/7 by calling Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or texting CONNECT to 686868.
- Check your local school board’s website to find out if mental health services are being offered through the school board during this time.
- Contact your family doctor to ask about local services you may be able to access.
- Children’s Mental Health Ontario agencies are open and providing support to children and youth virtually and by phone. No physician referral is required and no OHIP card is necessary to access services. Find a Children’s Mental Health Centre in your community.
- The Hope for Wellness Help Line (1-855-242-3310) offers mental health counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous peoples across Canada.
- The Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) offers a 24-hour Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Line with culturally specific mental health and addiction supports for adults, youth, and families in Ontario in both English and French, please call: 1-877-767-7572.
- The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) that provides immediate emotional support for former Indian Residential School students. Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- The Black Youth Helpline (416-285-9944 or toll-free 1-833-294-8650)
- LGBT YouthLine (text 647-694-4275) offers confidential and non-judgmental peer support through telephone, text and chat services.
- Trans Lifeline (877-330-6366)
- Use Ontario 211 to look up the services available in your area.
- Try the Kids’ Help Phone Resources Around Me.
- Additional Mental Health Supports for Indigenous Students
National Association of School Psychologists
Parent tips, resources for schools and school mental health professionals
The Hope for Wellness Help Line
Mental health counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous peoples across Canada
Ministry of Education – Learn at home
Find supplementary resources for elementary and secondary students to practice math and literacy skills and learn at home
Youth-focused mental health resources hub
An online hub of COVID-19 youth-focused mental health resources from Jack.org, Kids Help Phone and School Mental Health Ontario
Public Health Agency of Canada
Risk level for Canadians, current situation, travel advisories
Indigenous Services Canada
Information for Indigenous communities related to COVID-19 and available supports
The First Peoples Wellness Circle has put together a resource with tips for First Nations parents and families on supporting mental wellness of children and young people in their communities.
Government of Ontario
Ontario news, status of cases in Ontario – updated at 10:30 a.m. daily
World Health Organization
Technical documents, questions and answers
Mental Health Support for Indigenous Students
Supports for Indigenous Students