When Tamar Canady thinks about the upsides to the coronavirus pandemic, she thinks about how she and her 15-year-old daughter sleep in more these days.
But the downsides are difficult.
Ella Canady, like many teens, often hides her emotions. But recently at her home in Phoenix, she has had some uncharacteristic breakdowns in front of her mom. She misses her friends. And school – the real kind, not the kind where she sits in front of a computer for five hours a day.
“I’m sorry,” Tamar says as she soothes her daughter. “I know you didn’t want this.”
Nobody knows when or if life will return to normal after the coronavirus pandemic. But as the weeks of stay-at-home orders and school closures continue nationwide, parents are questioning whether isolation measures and physical distancing are doing lasting damage to their kids’ emotional development.
Will this generation grow up fearful of touching or standing too close? Will they know how to make friends or interact in group gatherings? And how will it affect their academics and job prospects?
Psychologists and economists are still gathering data, but here’s the consensus for the short term: Most of the kids will be all right.
Some experts see younger children poised to bounce back better than adolescents and teens, who are going to face some stress. But in general, children’s resilience is inherently tied to the stability and safety of their families.
That’s why children from families who are already vulnerable – with the tightest finances, facing job losses, food insecurity, housing instability or fractured relationships – are likely to fare the worst and will need the most help. Without solid emotional and financial supports, those children are likely to face the biggest blow to their social, psychological and academic development.
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“We really are facing two crises,” said Ariel Kalil, a developmental psychologist at the University of Chicago and director of the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy. “We have the economic crisis, but we also have this school crisis that will have uneven impacts, depending on a family’s income.”
In general, high-income families will have the means and habits to make up for school closures. But low-income families will face more stress and have less access to resources.
“They’ll have fewer habits and supports for stimulating their children in the home environment to make up for that schooling loss,” Kalil said.
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Most kids will bounce back after quarantine
Life may be weird right now, but many kids will build resiliency through this period, child development experts say.
There’s no precedent in the research literature for this kind of collective impact. But social and emotional outcomes for children will depend largely on how close they are to stress and how long it lasts, the stability of the resources around them and the presence of relationships that help moderate the stress, psychologists say.
“I don’t think this is going to have an everlasting effect,” said Seth Pollak, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Child Emotion Lab. Much of his work focuses on how disadvantaged children develop. But he suspects affluent, college-bound students will emerge just fine.
“Most kids will ride this out and probably write some interesting college application essays about it.”
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For toddlers, life during the pandemic is giving them exactly what they yearn for: the ability to more fully attach themselves to their parents stuck at home, said Amy Learmonth, a psychology professor at William Paterson University of New Jersey who studies children.
“I would not worry about the little ones, even though they’re driving their parents nuts,” Learmonth said. “In the infant and toddler phase, it’s kids’ goal in life to have their attachment figure close to them.”
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Learmonth said she worries more about children in their tween years, who are pivoting from having family members at the center of their social interactions to placing peers in that role. Adolescents and teens are figuring out how to make and be friends with people because they share commonalities, not just proximity.
“They’re the ones who are probably suffering most in the short-term,” Learmonth said. “What they’re learning in the hallways of middle school is vastly different from what they’re learning to do in a virtual group chat with friends.”
For some kids who associate those hallway interactions with stress or anxiety, quarantine has actually provided some relief, said Tim Kearney, chief of behavioral health at Community Health Center Inc. in Middletown, Connecticut. The organization serves students’ mental health needs at about 100 school-based sites across the state.
But many other children are struggling with the loss of face-to-face time with peer groups, as well as the loss of other school and community rituals, Kearney said.
‘I don’t know what to do with myself’
For Alina Tran, a senior at East Haven High School in Connecticut, her biggest worry before COVID-19 was picking out a college. Now she’s worried about keeping her Advanced Placement course grades above a C while trying to finish her senior year online. Tran places a lot of pressure on herself and dreams of becoming an optometrist.
She’s attended art therapy sessions for years at school to help manage her stress. Now those therapy sessions, hosted by Community Health Center, have moved to Zoom. Last week, Tran met online with three other students and a therapist while drawing from their homes and bedrooms.
“I don’t know what to do with myself,” said Tran, who found herself too out of sorts to even doodle. But she held up a painting from a previous week, where the prompt was to place a lighthouse in an incongruous setting. Tran painted it into a meadow.
“My parents didn’t graduate from college,” she said. “I’m really stressed about it. And with this whole pandemic, and with visiting colleges and everything getting canceled, I don’t really know a good way to transition to college.”
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Tran’s therapist assured her that her feelings were normal and encouraged her to make time for creativity to help stay calm.
It’s actually good advice for everyone. Kearney said adults can best help their kids by staying focused on the present, and by getting physical and mental exercise daily.
“One thing that helps is for parents to exercise creativity: ‘Let’s have a dinner from such-and-such a country, let’s eat food that’s all the same color, let’s have a picnic in the bedroom,’ ” Kearney said.
Parents should also consider relaxing limits on screen time, he added. Social media can provide kids with a much-needed connection to peers and social groups, especially for those who can’t safely go outside.
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Kids of low-wage workers need more support
Kearney and other child psychologists worry most about children from the most challenging circumstances.
“I have kids I’m treating who are going stir crazy because they haven’t gone outside in three weeks,” Kearney said. “They don’t have a yard, a patio or a balcony, and if they open the door to the hallway, there are lots of people milling about.”
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New data from a study following service-industry workers in one large American city paints a particularly worrisome picture of their mental and economic well-being.
The study was designed to track families where at least one parent worked in the service industry – in normal times. But the arrival of the pandemic allowed researchers to survey families before and immediately after the public health crisis shuttered most of the American economy.
The blow was immediate: More than 4 out of 10 households experienced a layoff between February and mid-March, said Anna Gassman-Pines, an associate professor of public policy at Duke University and a co-author of the research. Her partner is Elizabeth Ananat, an economist at Barnard College.
By early April, layoffs had occurred in almost 6 in 10 households being studied.
The job losses were accompanied by a spike in severe mental health symptoms. About 10% of parents reported feeling anxious or depressed all day at the end of March, up from 6% of parents who reported feeling that way a month prior, the results showed.
Children felt worse, too. About 20% of them started chronically misbehaving at home, their parents reported, a jump from 14% the month before, Gassman-Pines said.
“What was surprising to us was just how quickly families’ well-being took a hit after the full extent of the crisis started to take place,” Gassman-Pines said.
Research shows economic downturns are linked with a host of bad outcomes that hit vulnerable families hardest.
Disadvantaged youth who experience community downturns in their formative years are more likely to have lower test scores and lower rates of college attendance, Gassman-Pines added. And even if children don’t have a family member who loses a job, they tend to do worse in school and life when many people around them experience unemployment.
The most dramatic solution won’t be cheap: Gassman-Pines said policymakers need to be thinking about how to get more cash to low-income families as quickly as possible.
“The majority of these people responded that they cannot pay for groceries this month,” Gassman-Pines said. “Same with rent and mortgage. They are really needing resources for those.”
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Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.
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