Mental health experts share how they believe the pandemic may affect children in the long term.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed all of our lives, but for developing children, its impact may have more long-term effects.
“Every child’s experience of the pandemic is different based on their temperament and their home life,” Jacqueline P. Wight, director of mental health services at DotCom Therapy, told HuffPost. “Many children have experienced mental health challenges, and we anticipate that for some of these children, there will be lasting effects. For others, the challenges were more situational and will subside as life returns to normal.”
There’s no easy way to know which camp your child may fall into, but parents can take note as the situation evolves.
“Children are starting to experience the ripple effects from the collective trauma of the pandemic, and the long-term implications of this ‘lost’ pandemic year may not be fully understood for years to come,” said licensed clinical social worker Nidhi Tewari.
“The good news is that children ― and humans in general ― are resilient beings, and we will begin to recalibrate as the threat of COVID-19 dissipates in the coming months and years,” she added. “If we take steps to attend to our mental health and well-being now, then we can mitigate some of the long-term impact of this pandemic.”
Ultimately, awareness is key. Below, Wight, Tewari and other experts share some potential long-term changes for parents to keep in mind as they guide their children through the coming months and years.
Understanding Of Loss
With the current COVID-19 death toll at more than 4 million worldwide, countless children have been exposed to loss and grief during the pandemic. For many, this may have been their first experience with death.
“For the thousands who lost parents, grandparents and other loved ones, the loss is immeasurable, and grief and bereavement can take many forms,” said Dr. Ilisse Perlmutter, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Talkiatry.
Even those who haven’t lost a loved one may have felt grief over lost experiences or opportunities. Parents should be prepared to help their children cope with grief and understand that it’s all part of the human experience.
“While it is easier said than done, it is best not to overthink the possible losses that children have experienced during the pandemic,” said Wight. “They have lived through a profoundly unique and powerful experience. They have gained skills as well as understanding during this time.”
Vulnerability To Mental Health Disorders
“Through the pandemic, there were significant increases in children and adolescents reporting anxiety and depressive symptoms, and this will likely continue trending upwards,” Tewari said.
The data doesn’t look great. A report from Save the Children found that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a “devastating” impact on American families’ and children’s emotional health.
“We will see on the negative side increased vulnerability to anxiety-based disorders such as eating disorders and pressure on children and adolescent mental health services,” said psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “Investment in mental well-being needs to increase and the whole needs of our kids considered.”
While many parents are anxious about their children catching up academically, McDermott believes kids have gained the perspective to recognize the other important issues in life ― which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“We have a lot of choice about how to frame this for ourselves and for our kids,” he said. “Whilst we have seen an increase in anxiety disorders and depressive disorders during this time in kids, if we respond well to this with effective support, positive skills can be learned by kids about how to manage challenge and there can be improved resilience going forwards.”
“Many children may continue to struggle with social anxiety due to the isolation of the past 1.5 years, so gradual exposure to social situations and redeveloping social skills will be essential in helping them in reacclimating,” Tewari said.
Dr. Dyan Hes, founder of Gramercy Pediatrics, said she’s concerned about childhood development, particularly with the littlest of little ones, as the most rapid brain growth occurs from birth until age 3. Missing out on interactions with others may have fostered a sense of social isolation that will need to be overcome.
“These children have not seen many facial expressions behind masks, they have not learned to navigate the social skills needed to play with other toddlers or even the motor skills to run on a playground,” she explained. “As a pediatrician, I wholeheartedly encourage families to send their children to school, camp or day care. The benefits far outweigh the risks, unless their child has a medical condition that would make COVID life threatening. … We need our children to reemerge into society and we need all adults to be vaccinated for this to happen.”
“We do know that kids from already stressed and underresourced communities were more adversely affected during the pandemic.”
– Dr. Helen Egger, child psychiatrist and co-founder of Little Otter
All of the mania around sanitizing and disinfecting may also have a long-term impact on some children.
“There could be increases in illness anxiety disorder due to fears of catching the virus and having to maintain the strict hygiene protocols that have been necessary through the pandemic,” Tewari said.
“Most people’s nervous systems are dysregulated due to the pandemic’s threat to our safety and health, so it will take time for our brains and bodies to recover after the pandemic ends,” she added. “As a result, we may feel disoriented, and have a hard time believing that life can ever be ‘normal’ again.”
Anxiety around illness may also mean some children feel a fear or discomfort around going outside.
“I have noticed many kids who have never climbed up the playground ladder, learned how to ride a scooter or a bike,” Hes said. “These kids have been kept indoors for fear of COVID because they are too young to be vaccinated. I try to encourage parents to take kids out to get fresh air, run and play.”
Although we can’t yet fully know the extent of the pandemic’s lasting impact on children’s academic performance or development, there are certain trends that are already very clear.
“We do know that kids from already stressed and underresourced communities were more adversely affected during the pandemic,” said Dr. Helen Egger, a child psychiatrist and co-founder of Little Otter. “Widening inequality for children may be one of the worst impacts of the pandemic.”
From economic challenges to mental health struggles, many existing gaps between populations have worsened during the pandemic, and children are bearing much of the brunt.
“Children who were struggling before the pandemic may lag further behind,” Perlmutter said. “Youngsters who are homeless, have disabilities, subjected to racial violence are especially at risk.”
The impact of the pandemic isn’t entirely terrible. Wight pointed out a silver lining of living through such “unprecedented times” unlike anything kids have experienced before.
“It’s important not to overlook that children will also have special or positive memories related back to the pandemic,” Wight said. “They might remember having more quality family time, a slower pace of life, FaceTiming with family members across the country and new hobbies they developed while at home.”
McDermott highlighted other positive aspects ― like spending more time with family and the refreshing old routines.
“The ‘interruption’ to the treadmill of school, university and jobs can also be viewed positively as it has allowed time to focus on important relationships in our lives,” he said.
Connection To Others
Although the pandemic brought social isolation, it also fostered a sense of global community. There’s also a universality to the experience, which creates common ground for children growing up with the trauma of COVID-19.
“As a global event, there is a shared experience for all the world’s children,” McDermott said. “As has been shown around issues such as climate change, kids are truly amazing at seeing their connections and joining together. Is this the global generation? Some of us hope so.”
He also emphasized the power of the internet in allowing children to connect to each other even amid their isolation.
“The hegemony of online experience has moved forward and we will see this generation more connected to that and connected to global voices and experiences,” McDermott said.
“Despite the horror of this devastating year, understanding that in the face of trauma and this public health disaster we have the capacity for resilience has been comforting and grounding,” Perlmutter said. “Marking life events and celebrations in the usual ways was disappointing but not out of the question. Watching the grace and enthusiasm of high school seniors’ graduation ceremonies in living rooms, drive-by birthday celebrations, Zoom visits with grandparents, and bar and bat mitzvahs and confirmations on Zoom was humbling. It gives me hope.”
Throughout the pandemic, children have learned to cope with many unforeseen changes and challenges. While the experience wasn’t always positive, it fostered major growth and resilience.
Wight encouraged parents to keep this bright side in mind as we continue to work through the evolving situation.
“It is critical for parents to manage their own distress and worries, as it directly impacts their children’s well-being,” she said. “It is most helpful to focus on the resilience of children and to give them many opportunities to return to play and the work of being children.”
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