The pandemic has weighed heavily on children – but there are ways to lighten their load

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP</span>
Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP

The debate about potential school closures or delays has initiated discussions about children’s mental health once again. Kids are very resilient, but the impacts of Covid-19 have been big – and continuing. Childhood mental health is important because it lays the foundations for social and emotional wellbeing in later life. The good news is parents and carers can positively influence their children’s wellbeing, and “good enough” parenting can have a meaningful impact.

How are kids doing?

At the population level, there were increasing rates of psychological distress in children prior to the pandemic and this has further increased during the pandemic. Lockdowns and having parents or carers who are also experiencing psychological distress are associated with poor mental health in children and adolescents.

Related: Youth mental health: Australia needs to look beyond ills of social media to fix crisis, children’s commissioner says

Fortunately, in Australia Covid has not to date been associated with a rise in suspected deaths by suicide. And a 2022 Canadian study found no increases in self-harm presentations in teens. Though a NSW study found an increase in mental health presentations to emergency departments through Covid times.

And in Australia, more people of all ages have been seeking mental healthcare through 2020 and 2021. For instance, the Australian Kids Helpline has experienced a 17% increase in calls compared with pre-pandemic. The prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms during Covid has doubled for children.

The pandemic is now a chronic stressor

Initially we found creative ways to address Covid stress – remember all those dance parties on TikTok? Adults and children are now weary. Chronic stressors are known to be particularly challenging. As the pandemic enters its third year, evidence is showing that lasting mental health challenges are unevenly affecting those with financial issues, those who have had Covid or lost someone to Covid and those whose mental health was poor before the pandemic.

Some have faced enormous challenges; others feel “blah”, lacking motivation and focus. An Australian study showed though that some older children (12-18yrs) have had positive experiences during Covid. Some have benefited from more family time, a slower pace of life and more control over one’s day.

Do school closures cause poor mental health?

We have only a handful of studies regarding the singular effect of school closures (or delays, or online learning) on children’s mental health – it is not easy to tease out impacts of the pandemic itself compared with school closures. Existing studies typically ask the parents’ view, and study teens.

A 2021 analysis in JAMA Pediatrics showed school closures may only modestly reduce pandemic spread. Disruptions, change in teachers can in themselves cause distress in children … but kids need socialisation and quality education.

There is no need to hurry your children out of ‘negative feelings’ – comforting, being there and riding it out is enough

What about masks?

Emerging research shows that masks have not adversely affected children’s emotional development. You might remember the famous study by Tronick back in 1975, called the Still Face experiment. In the study, when parents were instructed to keep a straight face, their kids withdrew and got upset. Some people have worried masks would have the same effect.

But initial studies into adult mask wearing and primary school kids’ reactions have shown children continue to interact and perceive emotions as they did before.

Simple, evidence-based ways to promote children’s mental health

Parents are stressed by decision-making and risk assessments. Parental stress has a significant impact upon child mental health. So it’s worth keeping in mind the suggestions below can boost mental health for adults and kids.

Prioritise your own mental wellbeing. Give yourself permission to do the things that might give you a lift, even if only temporary, and take a break from what drains you. Seek social connections that feel safe, and keep the basics – enough sleep, eating well and keeping physically active.

Allow space and time for enjoying your child. Positive relationships and play, silliness and sharing in fun activities protect our mental wellbeing and that of our children. In you, your child has their best resource.

Consider the opportunities for teaching your child mental wellbeing skills, like accepting feelings. Accepting the full range of feelings helps children with emotion regulation. There is no need to hurry your children out of “negative feelings” – listening, comforting, being there and riding it out is enough. Breakdowns in relationships between parents and kids happen. Repair matters. Parents can role-model repair by expressing warmth, talking about what happened, and apologising.

Related: Coalition’s ‘crisis response’ neglects impact of pandemic on young children, inquiry hears

Remember that perfect parenting is not required to raise psychologically healthy children.

Good quality information can reduce fear and uncertainty for all. Giving your child manageable amounts of accurate, age-appropriate information can help alleviate concerns. Follow your child’s questions and resist the urge to provide too much reassurance (paradoxically, this sometimes makes fears stronger).

Prevent Covid infection, if you can. A Lancet article reports that adults who have been infected with Covid-19 are at an increased risk for anxiety and mood disorders after the infection compared with other infections (we don’t know if the risk is similar for children).

Give time for unstructured play (like making a fort) – it is key to the development of self-esteem, self-determination and the ability to self-regulate, all vital parts of emotional development that help prevent mental health challenges.

Positive event scheduling (that is, doing things you enjoy) prevents and treats depression, done together it can also strengthen relationships. This could be as simple as a card game together.

Worries about Covid and other worries should not usually be thought of as a mental illness. Courage challenges can help children overcome their worries and build confidence in themselves (for example, learning to jump into water).

Given exposure to a chronic stressor, most people will have engaged in some negative parenting. Be kind to yourself.

Humans are amazingly resilient. We have surprisingly useful abilities to make the best of a bad situation. Good-enough parenting is all it takes. You are your child’s best resource. Stabilising emotional wellbeing through connection, fun and play can recharge the whole family’s battery.

  • Professor Alexandra Martiniuk is an epidemiologist at the University of Sydney. She is a member of the Technical Advisory Group on Youth, convened by the National Mental Health Commission

  • Linda Rosewell is a clinical psychologist who works with children, adolescents and their families

  • Professor Jennie Hudson is the director of research at the Black Dog Institute and professor of clinical psychology at the University of New South Wales. She is the chair of the Technical Advisory Group on Youth

  • Several other clinical colleagues have contributed to this article anonymously

Seeking help

Seek help for your child if you perceive a problem. Signs of mental health issues in children may include: being more withdrawn, not enjoying things, refusing to return to school, irritability, lots of worries; changes in sleep, appetite or energy; hurting themselves or wanting to die.

Online tools can be useful if you need to wait for professional supports. There are several excellent resources online, including: Kids Helpline section for 5-12 year olds, Head to Health,, Macquarie University’s on preventing anxiety and depression in children, Black Dog’s COVID-19 resources for parents, This Way Up, Reach Out. Parents can also discuss concerns with a GP or call Mental Health Telephone Access Line (1800 011 511) or the Beyond Blue Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service anytime via telephone at 1800 512 348 or online at

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