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Children: Nine Months into the Pandemic
By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
Early in the pandemic, when most of us assumed we’d have a few months of disrupted work and school, I wrote about children’s resiliency and about the ways they will continue learning even if their academic life were not as robust. That is still true, but nine months has taxed families and children in different ways than the initial crisis mode did. In a recent meeting of the Child & Adolescent team here at Commonwealth Psychology, I asked my colleagues what they have been hearing.
Given that most parents and children had looked forward to a resumption of academics and peer interaction even if in virtual form, it may be a bit surprising that remote learning has increased anxiety among many children. Clinicians report that anxious behaviors like fiddling, sleep problems, and skin picking have increased. Parents note that their children require more reassurance that they’re doing their remote work “right.”
Our staff notes that children who have high expectations of themselves seem particularly prone to anxiety and loss of confidence in the virtual environment. This may be because there is less organic access to help (the teacher wandering around the classroom, casually helping here and there.) Instead, asking a question or being corrected involves being publicly displayed on the screen. While children with social anxiety may benefit from fewer in-the-moment, unpredictable interactions with peers, that can sometimes be offset by feeling stared at by the whole class, and having one’s home environment open to judgement by others. And of course, children are absorbing the message that the reason they are doing remote learning is that the world is an unsafe place – this may be more frightening for children than for adults, as they have less context and understanding of the virus.
Another interesting observation by one of our clinicians was that though initially high-schoolers, who are used to online gaming and other online activities, adjusted well to virtual learning, over time anhedonia (lack of interest and pleasure) and boredom has increased. It has been tough for teenagers, who often enjoy the separation of home and school as they’re developing their independent identities. Instead, they are immersed in home life with parents and siblings, with little privacy and freedom.
For younger kids, parents report that lack of peer interactions is starting to be felt by all. Younger kids don’t socialize as much through conversation, which teenagers can still easily do, but through physical, imaginative, interactive play. Most young children’s peer groups have shrunk to siblings or one or two “pandemic bubble” families. Parents who are already overwhelmed by trying to supervise children at home while working from home simply don’t have the time and energy to enter into the kind of play their children are craving and missing. Even if they could, children are generally better at playing with each other.
Many schools have had hybrid models – some days in person, some at home. While by and large we are hearing that children are delighted at the opportunity to see peers, there is also some stress and confusion in transitioning back and forth between modes of learning and lack of consistent daily routine. Other schools were in person, only to be shut down temporarily due to COVID cases among students or staff. One of our clinicians noted that their child, after such a shut down, had lost the initial excitement and momentum of being back in school and found it difficult to transition back.
Finally, children with special needs who are on 504 plans or IEPs (individualized education programs) are generally not able to get the level and quality of services that they were able to pre-pandemic. While most districts prioritize students on IEPS, the school day is often shorter than usual if it is in person. And when it is not in person, interventions by occupational therapists, physical therapist, speech and language pathologists and others are hampered by the lack of physical materials, activities and supervision that they normally access. Children themselves may not complain or notice these changes. However, parents of students with special needs are among the most worried and stressed that we see. They feel powerless to help their children as much as they would like, given that they don’t have the skills that special education staff have.
Of course, there have been benefits as well for children. Some report relishing having more time with their families, and many especially love the extra sleep they can get. Parents also often mention the lack of the morning hurry and stress of trying to get the children out the door and themselves to work. Fathers in particular have reported that working from home, rather than a long commute away, has enabled them to be more actively involved in their children’s lives.
Your child may have adjusted relatively well to the changes brought on by the pandemic, as many have. However, if they are having any of the difficulties alluded to here — increased or persisting anxiety, anhedonia, reluctance to engage in academics, or other behavioral changes — it may be helpful to get additional support for them. Many schools are offering online counseling sessions with the guidance counselor, school psychologist, or social worker. While therapists are in high demand currently, you may be able to find a child clinician given that now you aren’t limited to a physical office or perhaps even after school hours.
It is also helpful to remind yourself and your children that what you are experiencing, you are not experiencing alone, and that it is normal to be worried, to be distractible, and to miss one’s friends and freedom at this taxing time of a global pandemic. There may be some academic and social catching up to do after schools re-open in full, but your child will be in a cohort of others, engaged in the same task, and there is some comfort and camaraderie in that.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist.
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