Helping kids cope with the pandemic’s emotional and behavioral legacy
Before the pandemic, Patrick DeFors brought his children, then ages 2 and 3, to a small in-home daycare three days a week. But when Illinois locked down in March 2020, DeFors and his wife Lisa pulled the children from daycare and kept them at home.
“They had all the safety procedures in place, but since no one knew exactly what was going on, we took the option of pulling them out,” says DeFors, who lives in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.
At home for a year and a half, the kids adapted to life within their four walls. But DeFors had to frequently deny his children’s requests for social interaction at the playground and the Shedd Aquarium — their favorite outing. It created tension that they had never had before.
The change in routine was a complete upheaval, DeFors says. His daughter, whom DeFors describes as extroverted and friendly, became more sensitive to the lack of social interaction. She began frequently requesting contact with people outside the family. “She’s much more like, ‘Let’s call our friends. Can I call them? Please text them,’” he says.
The DeFors kids weren’t the only ones cut off from socialization. Nationwide, enrollment in daycare dropped 67% last year, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and 93% of school-age children participated in some form of distance learning, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
When the pandemic stripped the opportunity to interact with peers and others, children’s social and emotional development suffered.
Some 48% of Chicago parents surveyed said they’d discussed concerns about their child’s mental health with their child’s primary healthcare provider, and 24% of parents said they used mental health or behavioral services for their children during the pandemic, according to a report from the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
While experts have seen changes in children’s behavior over the past year, they do not yet know what the long-term developmental effects will be.
Social worker Carmen Holley, a mental health consultant at the Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie Children’s, recognizes the emotional effects of the pandemic’s isolation and trauma in preschool and elementary-age children. “With the little ones, it might show up as new anxieties around things and being scared of things that they weren’t scared of before,” Holley says.
Some small children have experienced language regression and difficulty completing tasks they’d previously mastered, Holley says.
Their emotional reactions may change, too. Some children have become more outwardly expressive with their emotions, while others have become more inward and withdrawn, appearing sadder than they normally are.
Without in-person school, many kids lost an important place where they learn how to manage emotions, resolve conflict, and build healthy relationships. “If the child can’t manage big feelings, it is really hard for them to learn,” Holley says.
Teens weren’t immune to the stressors. Many took on much more responsibility during the pandemic, says Sheryl Dubinsky, a licensed clinical professional counselor and behavioral health lead at the Heartland Health Center’s school-based health center at Sullivan
High School, located in the city’s Rogers Park neighborhood. Some teens took care of younger siblings at home while parents worked; others took on jobs to alleviate family financial strains.
In these new roles, teens have had a hard time concentrating on schoolwork, with many becoming more anxious, depressed, and unfocused. Teens have had more crisis hotline calls for depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts. Emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts for teen girls rose 51%, according to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.
With limited in-person social activities, teens funneled their energy into social media, which has had both positive and negative effects on their emotional well-being, says Benjamin Shain, MD, PhD, head of child and adolescent psychiatry and vice chair of psychiatry at NorthShore University HealthSystem.
Social media has allowed teens to stay in touch with their friends, providing them emotional support as well as entertainment, Shain says.
But it has a flip side too. Social media can quickly take the place of in-person contact with peers — a habit that’s hard to break, especially for teens who have social anxiety.
Also, social media increases teens’ vulnerability to cyberbullying. “I’ve seen a lot of trauma, because all of the sudden, their peer group is ghosting them,” Shain says. Several of his patients, he says, have been hospitalized for suicide attempts after being abruptly cut off by a peer or peer group during the pandemic.
Holley says that in order to be present and available for children’s needs, adults first have to put on their own metaphorical oxygen masks.
“Take stock of what’s on your plate, what you’re grappling with,
and figure out what kind of care and support you need,” she says. Once adults face the stress and trauma in their own lives, they can better show up for children by listening and offering comfort from a more grounded place.
Creating a safe space, both psychologically and physically, is crucial to help children with social-emotional issues. “We don’t have to be social workers to listen to a young person, to reflectively ask open-ended questions, to tell them, ‘Tell me more about that,’ and to normalize it,” Holley says.
Dubinsky emphasizes that it’s important for kids to have a healthy lifestyle — such as good sleep hygiene, more exercise, healthier eating habits, and less screen time — in order to combat exhaustion, irritability, depression, and anxiety. Activities that help kids relax and connect to their loved ones, such as taking family walks, playing with a pet, or dancing to music can help too.
With schools reopening, DeFors says his children are excited to be going to pre-K and kindergarten at a school in their neighborhood. He anticipates a readjustment period for them, but he feels confident they will be okay.
In the future, when his children look back on this time, DeFors says he hopes they understand that it was rough for everyone, not just them. He wants them to know, “We tried our absolute best every single day,” he says. “We love them.”