With the majority of my clients being school-aged children, I have gained several clear observations from how Covid has impacted children over the past several months, both positively and negatively. From these limited observations, I’m hoping to continually mediate between children and their parents for best practices around communication and structure in order to reduce negative coping behaviors and anxiety.
Once the transition to online learning was figured out and schoolwork completed, most of my clients improved dramatically. Of course, it is also summer break, but I have clients as young as six years old complaining of the stress from homework. It’s no coincidence that the increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide among school-aged children is correlated with the trend in limiting children’s free and unstructured time by increasing activities, commitments, and homework, as researchers such as Dr. Peter Gray have continually shown.
Children are now seeking their own entertainment and fulfillment, giving back a sense of freedom and control over their own lives. During Covid, children have taken it upon themselves to explore their neighborhoods, create and express through art, build forts, daydream and play, and most importantly - experience boredom. Our knee-jerk reaction to assuage a child with a tablet or a screen has been lessened, whether from our own over-arousal or changes in our employment structure have allowed us more free time as well.
Children are much more resilient than we often credit them for, but these same children, especially highly sensitive ones, can internalize what they take in from conversations amongst adults and the news, allowing fear to manifest into anxiety. Several of my school-aged clients have reported to me that they either spend their day in their room alone or have difficulty sleeping because of what they overhear from the news related to the pandemic and other current issues.
I can remember being 10 years old when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred. I was old enough to watch the news and wasn’t sheltered from media, but I had no understanding of what a terrorist was. I truly believed pure evil was on earth and felt as if these ‘terrorists’ were lurking behind every corner. It took several months before I started having huge anxiety outbursts when I was left with a babysitter for the evening; I was unable to self-regulate or be soothed by the poor teenager from down the street. I can even remember a time where I locked myself in a closet when I was left home alone!
Similar to my story, children might also exhibit atypical behaviors or outbursts as they process internally on their own. If you have a quiet child, make sure you are checking in with them and answering their questions. You may see children regress to younger behavior, isolate, engage in attention-seeking behavior, attempt to self-soothe, or... confine themselves to a closet! I jest at my story, but it is true that people and animals alike will seek confinement when over-aroused.
I am also concerned about the long-term consequences of how anxiety around a virus can impact children socially and psychologically. I think we will see in increase in children developing obsessive and compulsive behaviors around a fear of germs; that certain people and places are not ‘safe’. Let us all be proactive in how we approach a young child’s understanding and precaution around an invisible threat.
My point is this; parents need to be mindful about what children are taking in and how to have direct conversations with their children about what is happening. Habits such as leaving the news on in the background 24/7 or within earshot of a highly sensitive child as they get ready for bed may need to be reevaluated. I can’t stress the fact enough that a constant, contentious news source is not healthy for a child or for an adult, period. I am not advocating to burry our heads in the sand, but merely limiting all of our exposure daily can help mental health exponentially.
We are also seeing as children relax and symptoms of anxiety diminish when they are no longer constantly aroused by growing homework assignments, chores, social activities, and commitments - maybe we should follow suit! Children have highly plastic brains, meaning they are able to restructure themselves as they take in new information, developing new neural pathways; but a brain and a body require rest to re-cooperate and replenish resources used as we learn and grow.