July 27, 2020

Tips for boosting your child's mental health during COVID-19

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As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and families spend more time at home, adjusting to "the new normal" may prove especially difficult for younger children as they gear up for the school year -- especially those learning remotely.

While experts are still learning about how the pandemic could affect children's long-term mental health, they have tips for parents now on supporting their children during these unprecedented times.

1. Maintain a daily routine

"The structured routine is really big" and "firm sleep times" are very important, said Dr. Anju Hurria, a child psychiatrist at the University of California, Irvine.

"I'm often finding myself recommending to parents to create the actual schedule," said Dr. Kevin Simon, a senior child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Boston's Children Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP, FILE
A woman and two children wear masks at a playground, July 11, 2020, in Los Angeles.

Both Hurria and Simon suggest creating a schedule on a white board -- that way kids know what they're doing during throughout the day, just like when they're at school.

"Their child can look at a board and can know, 'OK, it's 9 o'clock -- mom's going to do math homework with me," Simon said.

Hurria suggested also adding fun weekly activities, such as movie night on Fridays, so children can look forward to those special events. She encourages working together with children to create the schedule to give them a sense of agency.

2. Make physical activity a priority

While moving is important for your child's physical health, it's also beneficial for their mental health. People living in crowded places may not have a backyard for kids to burn off energy, but kids can go "back to jump rope, hula hoop and hopscotch -- it's super fun!" Hurria said. Even "just turning up music for 20 minutes and everyone in the family dancing" provides noticeable benefits, including helping children sleep better.

3. Limit negative news

"There's a lot of mixed messages being sent between the media, their friends, and others in the community that's probably making kids feel very confused," said Dr. Francesca Okolie, a neonatologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

David J. Phillip/AP, FILE
Vicky Li Yip, right, and her husband, Patrick, watch their son play outside their home, July 10, 2020, in Houston.

Hurria encourages parents to empower kids with information on how they can stay safe, such as information on hand-washing and social distancing, but it's generally best to save them from relentless new coverage.

"A lot of teenagers have actually told me this on their own -- kids say it gets overwhelming and they need a break," Hurria added.

4. Keep up social connections

Spending more time at home has made it harder for some kids to feel connected to others

For kids who are struggling, Hurria recommends they create a family tree. This activity pushes your child to reach out to relatives, which will help them remember "there are so many adults" who care about them. Parents also can arrange virtual playdates or online sleepovers by using video-conferencing platforms. Older children or teens also may benefit from low-risk activities with friends such as a socially distanced walk outside.

5. Engage children in an open dialogue

Check in with your kids. Set aside time in the day or week to ask them, "How are you doing with everything?" Hurria recommends.

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Simon recommends using what he called the "emotion box" or "emotion ladder," a helpful framework to discuss your child's feelings. Before bed, talk to children about "one thing bad that happened, describe their emotions, [and] one thing good that happened, and describe their emotions." This "gives kids a language to understand their emotions."

6. Build hope and a sense of purpose

With more free time, it's good for children to "find some sort or hobby or project they are passionate about," like growing a garden box or herbs in the kitchen, Hurria said. Doing so allows them to "focus outside of themselves." Even small tasks like making their beds "creates this concept of 'We're all in the house together.'"

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Hurria has observed that many children have enjoyed spending more time at home with their parents, who'd usually be at work. But not all families have this luxury. Those that do are encouraged by experts to start small and make one change at a time.

Sabina Bera, M.D., M.S., is a psychiatrist in New York and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.