As the pandemic continues and we isolate our families from the outside world, one question remains at the forefront of many parents’ minds: “How will this affect my children?”
Many of us adults are feeling the hit of social isolation, so we know that it must be affecting our little ones, too. But how? We know that isolation takes a toll on mental health, but some research shows that children may not be as affected as adults when it comes to short-term social distancing.
However, we don’t know how “short-term” these measures will be, and they vary greatly depending on where you are in the world. But one core part of life for kids has been affected nearly everywhere: schools.
In the US, about 8 in 10 parents say their child is now learning remotely. Although restrictions vary by state, county, and school district, we know that at some point many children were either learning remotely full-time or part-time (as part of a hybrid model, with some in-person schooling). While teachers are working incredibly hard to ensure our children keep up with their schoolwork, there’s no easy way to replicate the social aspect of school–and it could be taking a toll on kids.
Socialization is a primary part of childhood development and helps to support children’s mental health. With a school’s turning virtual, students may find themselves losing their main access to mental health support–their teachers, guidance counselors, and other faculty that support their daily wellbeing.
Additionally, children with mental health needs or from lower-income families may be more likely than others to experience negative effects from strict social distancing. A recent survey of over 2000 students up to 25 years old with a history of mental illness found over 80% felt the pandemic worsened their conditions.
How does age affect my child’s wellbeing?
Many children might be able to adjust to life’s “new normal” and not fully comprehend the gravity of the situation until later–but it’s hard to say how children will view the effects later on in life. Understanding child development at different ages will help us understand the effects the pandemic can have on them.
Preschool (3 to 5 years) and elementary school (6 to 10 years) lay the foundation of social development through peer interactions. Without these important interactions helping them learn, children might have more difficulty in their relationships. Parents should try to keep a consistent schedule and prioritize socializing with their kids at home.
Middle school and high school (11 to 17 years) students might have the most difficulty handling these life disruptions. It’s this stage in life that major social events like school dances, sports teams, and academic/social clubs help their developing brains mature. These events may help teens find their sense of self, and without them, their mental health and long-term social functioning may be affected.
Research shows half of mental illnesses begin by age 14, so children around this age group may have a higher risk for adverse effects of social isolation.
The effects are more than just psychological.
In April, a study of 41 overweight children in Italy showed they slept 30 minutes more, spent 5 more hours in front of a screen (phone, computer, or TV), and decreased their physical activity by 2 hours per week when compared to the year prior. So, children that may be at a higher risk for developing unhealthy habits might find it easier to sleep, sit, and remain inactive than they used to.
And it doesn’t stop there. The study also found that children’s eating habits had changed substantially when compared to the year before. Children ate more red meats, junk food, and sugary drinks–which while fine in moderation, shouldn’t be consumed too regularly. They did surprisingly eat the same amount of vegetables, so we’re glad kids are still getting their veggies!
Here are 6 ways you can help your kids:
- Communicate why social distancing is important. Kids may hear things from other students or social media, so be sure to explain that the science shows social distancing helps protect you, your family, and those who are at higher risk, like grandparents. Create a safe and open dialogue for children to ask you questions, process their feelings, and share things they’ve heard or seen. Remember–children are like sponges, so you might be surprised as to what they already know!
- Let go of your stress. Your kids see you every day and can often tell when something’s bothering you. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that you are amazing, important, and deserve quality “me-time”. Do some yoga, write in a journal, or even color a picture–take a moment for yourself.
- Lead by example. Make sure you’re showing your little ones you’re practicing social distancing and always wearing masks in public too. If you occasionally shrug it off as not important, your children might do the same. Important events like weddings and birthday parties can seem almost impossible to turn down, but remind yourself it isn’t worth the risks it poses to you and others.
- Continue with a routine. If you had an established routine before the pandemic, it might be time to start back up again. Consistency gives children stability and balance to focus on school and their relationships. Ease children into these changes gradually so you don’t throw any more sudden changes their way.
- Focus on the positives. It can be so difficult to be positive with so much uncertainty in the air. Try asking yourself and your family: “What are you thankful for this week?”, and try to remember the things that make you grateful. Positivity and gratitude will improve both your mental health and your resilience during tough times.
- Remember to acknowledge yourself. You’re doing the best you can–no one was prepared for what 2020 had in store. Talk with other parents, your partner, or loved ones about the struggles you’re facing and lean on them for support when you’re feeling low. You’re not alone in your struggles.
Remember, facts help us understand risks.
Out of the more the 9 million COVID cases in the United States, over 275,000 children have contracted COVID. And although the risk of death from COVID is low in children, there might be longer lasting effects of the virus we don’t know yet.
The CDC identified a serious condition associated with COVID called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) that causes various body parts to become inflamed such as the lungs, heart, brain, and skin. There’s little known about how this, as well as COVID, will affect children in the long-term. It’s always best to be safe and protect yourself and your children from these unknown risks.
Any child above the age of 2 that is able is recommended to wear a mask in public. Here’s a link to the CDC’s website on what to do if your child can’t wear masks in particular situations.
It’s important to know the facts to properly understand the associated risks so you can make informed choices about your day-to-day activities. We encourage you to always wear masks in public, limit social encounters indoors, maintain safe distances outside, and take all other necessary precautions to stay safe. Your little ones need you like you need them, so make sure you’re prioritizing your health and safety just as much as their own.