The long-term effects of the covid pandemic on children will come as a result of many factors, chief among them the level of connectedness they experience. We can take some lessons from previous disasters to get hints of what is to come with the future mental health of today’s children.
Children’s Delayed response to tragedies
My old mentor Dr. T. Berry Brazelton taught me that kids often have a delayed response to tragedies like the JFK assassination, teacher Christa McAuliffe’s death in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, school shootings, and 9/11. Kids always have a sense of where their parents are emotionally after such events. If they sense that their parents are overwhelmed with emotion, they often hold onto their own feelings in order to not put their folks over the edge. Once they see mom and dad back to normal, it gives them permission to feel their own emotions. Be aware of this phenomenon as we start to pull out of the pandemic.
Kids mirror adults emotionally
I have also found that kids tend to mirror the emotions of the adults around them . When I counsel kids who are angry or where there is intense sibling fighting, I encourage parents to look both within themselves for their emotional state as well as the state of their marriage. If they can clean up any inner turmoil or issues in the marriage, the anger in their children often magically dissipates. I believe that how parents handle the emotions arising from uncertainties, losses, financial stresses, and social disconnection from the pandemic will play a large role in how well their children handle their own adversity due to covid.
Lessons from the 1918 Spanish flu
The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed around one third of the world’s population, including approximately 675,000 people in the U.S. There was a resultant, dramatic increase in the number of patients hospitalized with mental health disorders, with survivors experiencing issues with sleep, depression, difficulties coping at work, and suicides. Parents were left to deal with the loss of children and children the loss of parents. In November 1918, 31,000 children in New York City alone had lost one or both parents. Kids were left feeling a mixture of guilt, anger, confusion, sadness, and abandonment. Be especially sensitive to the emotional needs of children who have suffered losses of loved ones.
How children handled 9/11
A study of children ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attack revealed that except for those who directly witnessed or suffered loss from the attacks, for most children the emotional impact was relatively transitory. As with previous research on resiliency, the study also demonstrated that pre-existing mental illness and prior exposure to trauma were associated with increased vulnerability to PTSD following such a traumatic event. I have seen that the girls most at risk for anxiety and suicidal thoughts during the current pandemic have been girls who had mental health issues like anxiety and depression pre-covid. Many of the girls suffering the most socially are the ones who had been lonely and isolated before covid. These kids need more support to learn how to express and prevent emotional overload and to become more connected with peers. I find that girls who have created a healthy balance with their academics, social life, home connections, taking care of their bodies, having quiet alone time, and having time to pursue their passions manage social media and cope better with life’s adversities. I believe this will hold true for how kids manage the challenges resulting from the pandemic.
Effects of quarantine on social skills
The lack of social connections due to the quarantine is troubling. Kids tell me that even when they returned to in-person school, classmates weren’t talking much to each other. The masks and social distancing were a big factor in this. But they also admit that they feel more socially awkward and out of practice socializing. I have run several weekend retreats and two summer camp weeks last summer where we created our own bubble of safety by testing every camper and staff prior to coming. What I have seen with these experiences is that once kids had the freedom to connect and play like the good old days, they got back in synch pretty quickly. They are so hungry for authentic connections. Everyone, campers and staff included, felt so happy to be free and to connect more deeply again. This gives me hope and faith that once the restrictions are lifted, we will get back in synch with our family and friends.
What kids need to thrive now & post-covid
The true extent of any long-term effects from the covid pandemic will likely take years to measure accurately. In the meantime, do what you can to help kids connect safely with their friends, especially in-person time. Give kids permission and the tools to express all of their emotions in healthy ways to prevent the buildup that can cause anxiety and depression. Parents, take good care of your own emotions so that when you are with your kids, they sense that you are present and able to handle their feelings. Find ways to commemorate those you have lost to keep them in your thoughts and lives. There are presently over 40 schools and institutions throughout the world that bear the name of Christa McAuliffe. This will keep her example of courage alive for generations to come.
Research has shown that the most important factor that allows kids to overcome adversity is having a trusted, loving adult in their corner. Be fully present when you are spending time with your children. And encourage them to have time with other adults who love them, like grandparents or aunts and uncles. Those connections are your best bet for kids thriving now and after the pandemic is long gone.
If you resonated with the ideas above, don’t miss Dr. Jordan’s new online parenting course: Parenting girls: The challenges girls face today with their feelings and friends and what they need