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How to give your kids "a sense of control" during a "disruptive" year

Preventing a mental health crisis in children
Preventing a mental health crisis in children and adolescents 04:52

The coronavirus pandemic could be having a more severe negative impact on children and teenagers' mental health than that of adults, researchers say. 

Cases of the virus have continued surging in several U.S. states throughout the summer, forcing kids to stay largely isolated. Experts warn students in states that have returned to in-person schooling could be in danger of returning to isolation should an outbreak occur at their school.

"I think it's become quite clear that the school year is going to be very disruptive for kids," psychologist and CBS News contributor Lisa Damour told "CBS This Morning" Wednesday. "They are already five months into a pandemic that has really worn all of us down. No kid had the summer they had in mind, even simple things like hanging out with friends or going to the pool didn't happen for most kids."

Whether in-person or remote, school will be a source of "tremendous anxiety" for kids, Damour said. 

She said that "decades of psychological research" pointed to two things that make a difference in helping children deal with stressful conditions: structure and having an emotionally warm, safe space.

"In all of the challenges we are facing, those are what parents should focus on, making sure home is a compassionate and friendly place, and that life is predictable," she said. 

Elements of a good routine include making sure children and teens get regular sleep and physical activity, a time and space to complete schoolwork, help out with tasks around the home or in the community and ensuring they have some leisure time with friends, under safe conditions. 

In terms of sleep, Damour suggests elementary school kids should get 11 hours per night, middle schoolers need 10 and high schoolers need nine hours.

"It is important to have routines, in part because it gives kids a sense of control when everything feels pretty out of control," Damour said, adding however that "they need to have fun things in their lives right now more than ever, really."

Experts worry that "chronic stress" facing all ages during the pandemic could have a particularly significant impact on those who are younger, feeling like a "long time" in what are "relatively short lives for them," Damour said.

She encouraged parents and guardians to be a "safe and steady" presence in a child's life, acting as a "powerful buffering force" against at least some of the coronavirus pandemic's most traumatic effects.

For parents, she said it was alright to feel stressed, adding that "it would be strange if people were not distressed," and they too should find healthy coping mechanisms. 

"Everyone should have access to professional mental health care," Damour said. "And in the absence of that, you know, the more warmth, structure, love, support and predictability we can provide kids, the better." 

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