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Has Your Child Hit the COVID Wall?

The Warning Signs Every Parent Needs to Know

The pandemic has taken a severe toll on kids of all ages. Parenting expert and best-selling author Dr. Michele Borba shares some red flags you should never ignore.

COVID-19 has disrupted our lives for the past year. For adults, that feels like a long time. For kids, it feels like a lifetime. The pandemic has robbed them of their usual social support networks of friends, teachers, and extracurricular activities, creating a toxic mental health trifecta of loneliness, depression, and fear. In fact, says Michele Borba, Ed.D., many young people are hitting a COVID wall.

"Some kids are really struggling with hopelessness right now," says Dr. Borba, author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (G.P. Putnam's Sons, March 2021, ISBN: 978-0-593-08527-1). "While things are really far from hopeless, children often tend to perceive circumstances to be much worse than they are." The fact that kids are in trouble is not a COVID thing. They've been stressed, depressed, and "running on empty" for a while. That's why Dr. Borba spent the last five years studying the character strengths that set up young people for happiness and achievement in life. Her book shares the traits that set Thrivers apartóand offers practical, actionable ways to develop them.

In short, many kids are in trouble. Yet Dr. Borba says too many parents miss the signs.

"Normally parents would be the first line of defense, but during COVID-19 they too are dealing with their own emotional, financial, and work-related problems," Dr. Borba points out. "And some may not have the experience in trauma or psychology to recognize the red flags.

"Ironically, being quarantined with your kids 24/7 doesn't make you any more likely to be tuned into your child's emotional state," she observes. "Close quarters actually have the opposite effect. You get so used to how your child is behaving that it seems 'normal,' especially when parents are also stressed."

What's the solution? Dr. Borba says the first step is to learn the danger signs that indicate your child may need professional help. She has created a checklist of red flags to look out for, arranged in an easy-to-follow A-F format.

Has My Child Hit the COVID Wall? The ABCs (and DEFs) to Watch For:

If you see these signs in your child, it may be a sign they need intervention from a mental health professional. Over the next few days, watch them a bit closer (without them knowing). Also, ask others who know and care about your child for their input. Warning signs are easy to overlook, and many kids won't say, "I'm really stressed-out and need help." It's up to you to tune in. No one knows your child better than you. Remember, you are looking for a negative/concerning change in your child's typical behavior that lasts.


  • Feels worthless, empty, or misunderstood: No one understands.
  • Hyper-critical of self and criticism, assumes guilt: I'm not good at anything.
  • Negative, pessimistic, feels life is bleak and the future is grim: Why bother?
  • Expects rejection or assumes failure: What's the point?


  • Stomachaches, headaches, change in appetite
  • Increased irritability, anger, impulsivity, temper tantrums, even over small matters
  • Disruptive, more aggressive, risky behavior, doesn't comply
  • More sullen, less communicative, or more secretive
  • Self-harm, cutting, burning, excessive tattoos, drinking, self-medicating


  • Decreased interest or wants to stop participating in social activities
  • Clingier, more anxious, pulls back, problems fitting in
  • Withdraws from family and friends once enjoyed
  • Chooses to socialize less, pulls away from friends or parents


  • Dark circles under eyes, appears sadder or distraught, drained overall look
  • Body posture is slumped or looks discouraged
  • Less attention to personal hygiene or appearance


  • Moody or sulking
  • Unhappy, sad, feeling down most of the time, crying spells for no apparent reason
  • Afraid, more fearful, excessive worrying


  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, or difficulties making decisions
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities and things once enjoyed
  • Restlessness, lack of energy, or fatigue during waking hours
  • Poor academic performance, lower motivation, not doing homework, drop in grades
  • Sleeping too little or too much, feels drained most of the time

Use the TOO Index to further recognize a marked change in what is normal for your child's behavior. Again, no one knows your child better than you. While you may not be trained in mental health, use your instincts to apply what Dr. Borba calls the "TOO Index."

Watch closely and notice if the behavior you're observing is too different from the child's natural nature, is too concerning, occurs too frequently, spills over into too many others, and lasts longer than two weeks.

"All kids will display signs of stress, fear, or sadness every now and then," says Dr. Borba. "Be concerned when you see a marked change in what is 'normal' for your child's behavior. Chances are that our children may not tell us, so it's up to us to tune in."

Even if your child doesn't need to see a professional, there's plenty you can do to support and reassure them. Note: See tipsheet below.

Beyond that, says Dr. Borba, parents need to be teaching kids the skills they need to overcome challenges and thrive in general. The good news is Thrivers are made, not born.

"Children who are more likely to thrive despite adversity are those who have learned protective buffers and resilience skills prior to a crisis," says Dr. Borba. Clearly, we have work to do as parents. Thrivers offers parents and educators a new playbook to help them instill in kids the skills that build resilience and help them succeed."The life skills that make kids Thrivers are the same ones needed to flourish in the midst of hardships like COVID-19," says Dr. Borba. "If kids can get through this huge challenge, they can probably handle most of what life throws at them later on."

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Has Your Child Hit the COVID Wall?

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