How to support your child’s mental health during COVID-19 and the return to school
During these challenging times, you may be worried about your child(ren)’s mental health and well-being. You may notice that they are anxious or unsettled, and perhaps have told you that they are worried about someone in the family getting the virus. They may be confused about why usual activities are disrupted or may be disappointed to miss something that they were looking forward to. All of these things are very natural at this uncertain time.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use emergency, call 9-1-1 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 may also be asked to wear a mask. This is all normal procedure at this time and does not mean that you or your child is more vulnerable to the virus. You just may want to be prepared that the emergency room experience may look somewhat different at the moment. 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.
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 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 situation.
- 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, 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 about COVID-19.
- Keep it simple. The COVID-19 situation 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, telling them that by washing their hands regularly 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 their questions as factually as possible but keep responses age-appropriate. Balance the facts with reassurance. Your child needs to know that they, and you, are safe. See the Additional resources section below for links to factual information sources about COVID-19.
- 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 establish a flexible routine for your child. This might include a regular, but relaxed, time for waking and sleeping, and perhaps for meals and snacks. Some parents will be working from home and may have new opportunities to connect with their child during the day. Playing and talking together can help everyone to feel more relaxed. This can take some planning at first while new schedules are being worked out. Watch for those natural moments when you can just be together and follow your child’s lead.
- Be patient and understanding. You may notice behaviour changes in your child. 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.
- 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 and express compassion.
- Encourage balance. Some teens may turn to Netflix, social media or gaming as a distraction from the day-to-day reality of social distancing—this is to be expected and you may also find you’re looking for distractions yourself. Taking breaks from screen time is helpful. Plus, too much social media exposure can have a negative impact on mental health. It’s a good idea for all of us to prioritize wellness as much as possible at this time. Try to encourage regular sleep habits. You could invite your teen to get outside for daily walks with you, or to do some cooking together.
- Pause before talking. With so much news coverage and talk about COVID-19, over exposure is very possible. You can provide a break for your teen by not discussing the situation in front of them unless they want to talk about it.
- Listen and provide reassurance when you can. Some teens may be worried about the health of their friends and family members, about the size 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, and how life will return to 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.
First, it’s important that parents and families are able to recognize and acknowledge their own feelings about return to school plans in order to support their child’s emotions. This is a very difficult time for everyone. Ensuring you have your own support system that you can share your feelings with will be important to be able to lend your calm to your child.
Second, worry and fear will be common feelings for many upon return to school. Listen intently to your child’s feelings, validate these feelings as normal and understandable, provide reassurances to help them feel safe, and focus on some
of the positive aspects of returning to school (like being with friends and teachers again). Most importantly, always do your best to lend a calm and caring presence to your child. This will help them find their calm.
Your child will need you to be calm and caring to support their own feelings about return to school. This is a difficult and emotional time for many, so any feelings you may be having are completely understandable. Because your child depends on you to lend your calm and help them regulate their own feelings, it’s vital to do this for yourself.
Determine who the adults are in your life that can support your feelings, and lean on them for support. Recognize, acknowledge and talk about all feelings that arise for you. That gives you a greater ability to stay calm in support of your child. If you don’t find a safe space to talk about your own feelings, there is a risk that your child could absorb your negative feelings. We can be the best models for children when we try to cope with our own difficult feelings in a healthy manner.
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).
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 9-1-1 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
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.
- Use Ontario 211 to look up the services available in your area.
- Try the Kids’ Help Phone Resources Around Me.
You might also be interested in:
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