As resilient and strong as we like to believe our children to be, this pandemic has been difficult for us all. When schools and businesses first closed, it may have felt like a momentary blip on the trajectory of time. Now, nearly 11 months later, many municipalities and businesses are still in various states of closure. Schools continue to remain restricted or closed, and the vaccine rollout has stalled in many places.
How the the pandemic is impacting our kids
As the pandemic stretches on, our kids may be starting to fray at the edges, and it’s not clear what the long-term effects may be. A recent systematic review of child development studies done during this period indicates that the pandemic “may well threaten child growth and development.” The review states, “The more adverse experiences, the greater the risk of developmental delays and health problems in adulthood, such as cognitive impairment, substance abuse, depression, and non-communicable diseases.” It’s difficult to predict just how kids will respond to the pandemic in the longer term. Still, most research literature agrees that the social and educational impact could be significant, both immediately and years down the road.
Dr. Erlanger “Earl” Turner is a licensed psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University, and former president of the Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice at the American Psychological Association (APA). He says that the pressure and stress of the pandemic emanate largely from the fact that kids aren’t able to socialize in the way they were previously used to, plus there’s the added stress of online schooling.
“According to data, children and teens have reported increased levels of anxiety and depression as well as loneliness over the course of the pandemic,” Turner says. “For LGBT youth, some studies have found increased concerns about depression and suicidal thoughts. Further, for youth of color — especially Black youth — the continued police violence during the pandemic may be an additional source of stress and concern about the safety of their parents.”
“Childhood is a critical period of development,” Turner continues. “This pandemic will forever shape the current generation’s social and emotional development. Traditionally, kids spend the majority of their childhood years in the classroom setting where they learn as well as socialize with their peers. However, given the pandemic and some shifts to online schooling, this has limited the ability of children to engage and face-to-face interactions with their peers to establish certain daily routines and to practice social skills. It will be interesting to see how these virtual environments will influence their later development and social relationships.”
Dr. Turner also says that the key is to look for stress indicators that might manifest in different ways. “Difficulties with sleeping, regression in behavior, worrying, depression or sadness, isolating, using smartphones constantly, are all indicators of stress in children and adolescents,” says Erlanger. He also says that these issues can also manifest in eating difficulties, either appetite increase or loss.
What can parents do?
Though navigating child-rearing during the pandemic is challenging to say the least, there are some tools that can help ease the stress.
Be open and honest, but cautious
One of the key ways in which parents can help support their kids is by communicating with them as honestly and openly as possible, and, as Dr. Turner points out, in an age-appropriate way.
The pandemic is scary, and parents have their own reactions to these stressors, and hiding those feelings doesn’t do kids any good. “Make sure whatever you’re communicating is age-appropriate.” He says, “Don’t give little kids too much information. The timing of the communication also matters. Avoiding having these kinds of discussions around bedtime, since that can leave kids thinking about things and worries around bedtime, which may make it difficult to sleep. Parents want to shelter their kids, but the truth is, you have to be upfront and let kids know how you feel about it too. You’re there to give them hope and demonstrate how to cope as an adult.”
Reinforce positive behaviors
Turner suggests that parents can also help their children by reinforcing positive behaviors and recognizing when a child helps out or does something without being asked. “Tell your kids they are doing a good job,” he says. “Keep them active, too.” To offset isolation and depression in kids, Turner suggests that getting outside or even just shifting locations inside the house can help kids see things from a new perspective and shake them out of a rut.
Use technology mindfully
Technology has become the center point of our lives during these safer-at-home-days, and kids are increasingly reliant on it for their schooling and social interaction. Turner says that using technology in mindful ways is crucial to ensure that kids are getting a balance of social interaction (even if it’s via a screen) and schooling. He suggests using apps like Netflix’s Party to stream a movie or show with friends and Zoom or FaceTime with them to connect, but he also notes that it’s important to find balance.
“There is so much to learn about how the pandemic will shape the development of youth in the future. Although technology helps us to navigate the world in many ways, it also prevents youth from developing social skills. For example, some research finds that when children spend too much time using devices, it impacts them physically, emotionally, cognitively, and socially. One concern about shifts to virtual interactions may lead to future difficulties with peer relationships as a result of the physical isolation,” Turner says.
Encourage a positive mindset and adopt a routine
Turner also says that it’s vital to stay positive. Positive self-talk is important for both parents and kids as we all figure out a way through these strange days. “I think that it is extremely important to keep some level of routine in the child’s life. This routine should include going to bed and waking at the same time and regular breaks that include some physical activity. This physical activity is important for health, but it also helps elevate an individual’s mood. One of the biggest lessons you can teach during this time is coping with uncertainty. Life is unpredictable, so it’s helpful to model for kids how to cope when life doesn’t go as planned.”
Ask for help when you need it
Parents should also ask for help when they need it. There are several resources for parents to use on the APA website, and Turner suggests that parents check out Effective Child Therapy for leads on professionals who might be able to help both parents and children cope.
Other parents can also be a really great resource during these challenging times. Having your pandemic pod to rely on is crucial as we all figure out our way through this. They can offer emotional support and new ideas to help support kids. The handful of parents that I reached out to on social media suggested ideas like choosing a new skill to learn together every few months and checking out outschool.com for extracurricular activities.
Governments and municipalities can also help
The burden of helping our kids through these tough times shouldn’t fall solely on caregivers, however. More comprehensive support from the government and municipalities is crucial to ensure the future well-being of our kids.
First and foremost, mask-wearing and social distancing must continue across the board. While a vaccine is slowly rolling out all over the country, it will be months before enough people get inoculated. So, masks will be needed for the near future. Before we can fully and safely reopen schools and childcare facilities and allow parents to go back to work, we must collectively get Covid-19 under control.
Second, governments, both local and national, need to support women and families. The burden of this pandemic has fallen largely on women, and the impact is vast. In December, a report showed that 27 percent of the childcare facilities still had not reopened after they closed in March. More women are missing out on promotions, leaving the workforce, or losing their jobs, thanks to the pandemic. In fact, women accounted for 100 percent of the jobs lost in December — and most of those job losses fell on women of color. In addition to all this, one in four women says they are considering cutting back on their careers or leaving the workforce altogether, according to a September 2020 report by Lean In and McKinsey & Co as a direct result of the pandemic.
To stem the tide and lessen the burden on women and caregivers, President Biden has announced a number of moves that should help support families and children as we continue to manage and hopefully mitigate the Covid-19 crisis. His proposal, a part of his $1.9 billion rescue plan, announced on January 14, would add tax credits for childcare and help support child care workers who are currently struggling to remain open in the current environment. Child care is a vital part of getting the economy going again. Since the pandemic began, more than 40 percent of parents have had to make changes to their work to care for children and family members, according to a survey by FlexJobs. Once childcare can operate safely again and fully open, parents and caregivers can get back to work, and we may see some “normal life” return. The CDC also just recommended that schools can reopen with the proper precautions in place.
“It is hard to say how the pandemic will shape the development of youth in the future,” Turner notes. “However, given the isolation and limited face-to-face interactions, there is potential to lead to challenges with forming healthy relationships during adulthood.” To stem that, we must all work together to support our kids and teens as safely navigate the pandemic. It’s going to take persistence and hard work, but if we continue to show up for one another, wear masks, practice safe social distancing and cleaning protocols, these strange 11 months could become a time of thriving for future generations.