What do we know about the impact the COVID pandemic is having on our kids?

When the coronavirus was making its early debut on the world stage, we thought there was one notable upside to it.  Children appeared to be virtually excluded from its wrath.  As time and the virus marches on, of course, we’re learning that we may have spoken too soon.  Children are not only succumbing to the physical symptoms of the disease, but they are also suffering psychological trauma in ways we are only beginning to understand.

Who knew how much school meant?

What started out as an unexpected break from school has evolved into lonely emails and videos in which students actually confess how much they miss their teachers and can’t wait for school to reopen.  (Not to mention just how much their parents agree.) With grim death tolls rising in the news on a daily basis and no one in the adult world able to tell them when schools will be opening, what’s it like to be a kid in the era of a global pandemic? Are there ways that parents can guide them through these uncharted waters with their self-confidence, joy, and capacity to achieve intact?

One thing is for certain these days and that’s uncertainty.  A novel virus has created a novel reality for everyone, including those paragons of knowledge and Rita-Zeller-LSCSWtruth in kids’ eyes: their parents.  “Parents are really the lens through which children view the world,” said Rita Zeller, GraceMed’s Director of Behavioral Health.  “The pandemic has presented both a challenge and an opportunity to model for our kids how to deal with the  unknown in a calm and rational manner.”

Stress and anxiety were already familiar to far too many of today’s kids before the global contagion came to all. any number of studies have tracked the more troubled state of mind of our children back to things like broken homes, socioeconomic stressors, and most notably, life in today’s test-driven schools where kids start striving for their place in the world far too early.

Jeffrey Hubbell, LSCSW“You would think that being out of school would be a welcomed change of pace,” said Jeff Hubbell, Behavioral Health Consultant Lead at GraceMed, “But having that learning environment disrupted really adds to their anxieties about the future because now there’s just not a clear way forward for them.  Many are just struggling to keep up.  The world they knew as a student might have been challenging, but at least they knew how to navigate in it.  Without a structured classroom system around them, they can often feel like their left on their own.”

The world gets smaller and not always safer.

A sense of loss can also characterize a child’s world in the COVID era.  Many are losing family and friends to the virus, and those who have not yet are hearing the reports and stories of death and dying all around them.  They’ve also lost the ability to visit in-person with friends, an interruption in social development that can potentially have lasting effects.

Unfortunately, there’s arguably a darker side to the lives of an increasing number of children now, too. Family should be a refuge from the dangers of the world around a child.  But turn up the economic stress on households where abuse has been a problem, and too many children can and do find themselves trapped in a war zone.

We often like to console ourselves with the notion that children are resilient, and it is true that they do have an amazing capacity to recover from trauma in their lives.  But we should never underestimate the important role parents must play in helping a child access and use his or her coping skills.  As it turns out, one of the most therapeutic tools in our box has the added advantage of being fun. It’s called play.

How parents can help kids COVID cope.

Noni New-webPlay is going to be important to your child’s well being during this time,” said Noni New, GraceMed Behavioral Health Consultant.  “Not only is it a way to relieve stress, but it creates a sense of belonging and togetherness that is so healthy for a child’s development and so at risk when they are quarantined.  Kids get to use their imaginations when they play.  They can be in control of the worlds they create at a time when everything outside is seemingly out of control.”

To the extent that you can, parents need to be a firewall protection children from overexposure to the endless barrage of news about the virus.  This is especially true the younger your children are.  Give them information they can actually use to increase their safety, like why it’s important to wash your hands often, stay at least 6 feet apart and wear a mask when you go outside.  It’s a great opportunity to cultivate a child’s capacity to care about others too.

Of course, older kids are being confined to home, too, right at that time of life when they are least inclined to be there.  While their capacity to cope with the unpredictable world may be greater than their younger siblings, teenagers are notoriously convinced of their invulnerability.  So separating them even six feet from their friends may become a battle of wills, like so much else at that age.

“It’s important to communicate openly and honestly with your teenagers about the reasons why,” Rita Zeller noted.  “We’re learning that the coronavirus can actually be more of a threat to the young than we first thought.  But they can also carry the virus asymptotically back home and end up putting lives at risk in their family.   As much as they may desperately need to see friends, helping them understand what’s at risk can help them make a smarter decision.”

Zoning out online for hours at a time has never been healthy for your kids, but you may find that relaxing the rules about social media and Facetime calls might provide a safe way to stay connected and make life in quarantine more tolerable.

It might also be a good time to go “old school” and establish a structure of scheduled duties around the house, especially for the older kids.  Approach it from the standpoint that you need them to help you carry the load, especially if you are having to help more with distance learning for the younger kids.  Giving them something they can contribute can only help was they look with an anxious eye toward their approaching responsibilities as adults.

Finally, you can only be as helpful to your kids as you are to yourself. Guard against judging yourself harshly in these trying times, and be mindful that you need and deserve your downtime, too.  Remember kids will mirror your mood.  Take care of your inner health, and it will reflect well on the well-being of your children.