Pandemic and children’s mental health
Unlike the other deadly disease-causing viruses, who do not discriminate against any age group and attach itself to whatever host they might find, COVID-19 has been different, particularly when it comes to age. The disease has shown a particular animus for older people, with those 65-plus considered at exceptionally high risk for hospitalisation and death, and those 18 and below catching a semblance of an epidemiological break. Though a small share of adolescents has suffered severe cases, most who contract the disease in that age cohort are likelier to experience milder symptoms or none at all.
But if COVID-19 is sparing most kids’ bodies, it’s not being so kind to their minds. Nobody is immune to the stress that comes with a pandemic and related quarantining. For now, there is a shortage of hard research on how the pandemic is affecting children’s mental health, mostly because the virus has been so fast-moving and studies take time. Loneliness in lockdown is common for kids separated from their friends. But all children will not be emotionally rattled by the pandemic equally – or even at all; COVID-19 will affect them to different degrees and in different ways. “Children who were struggling before [the pandemic] are at higher risk now,” says psychologist Robin Gurwitch. “You have to be careful about kids who were already in mental-health services; we have to make sure services aren’t disrupted.” Age can also be a significant factor in how hard the pandemic hits kids emotionally. Tiny children might not notice anything is different except that their parents aren’t going to work, which may seem like all upside. But those same younger kids have acutely twitchy antennae when it comes to reading the anxious mood of the older people around them. The ambient stress in a locked-down household in which parents are fretting, perhaps quarrelling, and disinfecting everything that doesn’t move does not go unnoticed by children.
If there is one thing that’s certain about the impact of the pandemic on the young mind, it’s that it’s not going to stop until the spread of COVID-19 itself does. For parents and other caregivers, that means mitigating the problem, not mending it altogether. One important step: dial back the media – especially TV news because when you hear about COVID-19 again and again and again and again, all of that leads to a kind of emotional poisoning. For older kids who have a greater sense of the unfolding crisis, Gurwitch still recommends a limited TV diet. More important, she argues for open communication in which parents ask their children what they know – or think they know, correct them when they’re wrong and validate their fears. Thinking about precautions like social distancing as ways to behave proactively can also help kids regain some sense of control.
The young generation living through coronavirus now will have the same conversations with their peers as they get older – the do-you-remember and where-were-you-when exchanges – as earlier generations have had about those other tragedies. For some, the memories will be of a more private pain. The goal, for parents and professionals and other caregivers, is to help ease that pain, to make the now more bear-able for kids, so that the memories will be too.
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