Although it’s impossible to say how long the COVID-19 pandemic might last, it’s certain that there are lingering emotional effects on all of us. Kids are no different, and perhaps they’ve even suffered the most — given how long a vaccine has taken to come around for them; the fact that each new experience is a chance for them to grow; and that school, which is central to their lives, has essentially been turned upside down.
[Related: 7 tips for parents of young kids navigating COVID-19]
Good stress vs. toxic stress
Under stress as they may have been in the last year-and-a-half, many children, supported by their families and social networks, have bolstered their natural resilience. Others’ normal physiological response to stress (which should come and go) has become a more pervasive and pathologic one. Some children have developed good coping skills, like talking to their families or doing a relaxing activity, while others have developed deleterious ones, such as being on screens endlessly.
Changing Lives and Mixed Messages
At first, it was very normal for us all to shrink back, put our social activities on hold as well as our kids’. At that time it was easy enough to explain to our kids that we needed to hold back on birthday parties, indoor sports activities, and even larger family gatherings. Over time it became harder and harder to navigate these decisions, causing not only the adults to be in a constant state of stressed decision-making, but also leaving our children confused over what was and wasn’t safe, especially with changing COVID rates, vaccination recommendations, and variants. Mixed messages from the media, their friends, and literally everybody around them has made things really confusing. In our household, my husband and I didn’t even see eye to eye on some of these decisions, but tried our best to be very clear about our co-created rules and expectations.
[Related: Nurturing your child's health in the pandemic's aftermath]
When I see families now who still haven’t started to navigate some social activities with their kids, I worry. Especially when I see kids who have lost interest in activities they previously enjoyed, it’s a red flag. Physiologically speaking, our bodies can tolerate being in a stress state for some time, but living in a chronic state of fight or flight is unhealthy and, especially in kids, can start to manifest as physical symptoms, such as poor sleep (having a hard time falling asleep, waking up earlier than they want), headaches, abdominal pain, and poor appetite.
Add to this the stress of returning to a school environment in which they may not feel safe (COVID-19, violence, bullying) and underprepared (many kids got behind last year not just in their learning but in their study skills). In our house, we definitely had a slump in our kids' moods and their overall motivation and interest in learning, but luckily we are seeing things bounce back.
[Related: Reintroducing play dates in a post-pandemic world]
What To Do
If you’re not seeing your child bounce back or they have any of the red flags listed, I suggest you speak with your child’s pediatrician. At this point we are really comfortable with these conversations, can start an evaluation, and then point families in the right direction. Schools can be really helpful too: Although many are understaffed, they are also very aware of the social-emotional struggles that their students are going through; a social worker or caseworker can be a really great resource. Bottom line: don’t ignore the warning signs, and take action!