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Social-Emotional Pandemic Risks To Your Child -- and Solutions by Age

"Dr. Laura....I'm worried that...

  • "My 22 month old has to wear a mask in daycare four days a week."
  • "My extraverted four year old never sees anyone but me and his little sister, and is getting more and more difficult."
  • "My eight year old hates zoom school and now says he hates math and reading."
  • "My twelve year spends all his time playing games with friends online and lies about doing homework."
  • "My fifteen year old -- an only child -- really misses school and friends and seems lonely and depressed."

Most parents I know are worried about the impact of social isolation on their children, regardless of age. Remote learning isn't developmentally appropriate for children or teens, and most kids miss the social interactions that are part of the school day, as well as the after-school activities. If your child can go to school in person, that's probably a relief, but masks and social-distancing restrictions can trigger a sense of disconnection and sadness. It's hard for kids to sustain excitement about learning under these conditions. And as the pandemic continues, many youngsters are battling anxiety and depression, just as adults are. 

A recent British study cautioned that months of social isolation could have long-lasting effects on kids' mental health, which confirms the suspicions of many child-development specialists. Although this is worrisome, it's important to remember that these conclusions were drawn from studies done over the past five decades, none of which are an exact parallel to our current situation. And of course, children will be affected differently, depending on factors such as the supportiveness of parents, whether they have siblings, whether they tend to be extraverted by nature, whether they are able to attend school in person, etc. 

Given that this pandemic poses some obvious risks that may affect your child, what can you do to protect your child and reduce those risks? Here's your age by age guide.

For Kids of All Ages

Risk: Anxiety.

Solution: Develop healthy family habits to manage stress.

  • Routines, traditions and rituals all reduce stress and power struggles while normalizing healthy habits. 
  • Create a daily schedule that includes time outside in nature, exercise (family dance party?) and positive family interactions, like dinner, board games and an evening family guided meditation.
  • Brainstorm together to come up with a list positive actions everyone in the family can take to feel better when they're having a hard day, such as snuggling, reading a book, listening to music, blowing bubbles, watching a snow globe settle, or playing a favorite game.
  • Don't give up on Managing Your Child's Screen Time During the Pandemic.
  • Reassure your child that it is your job to keep everyone in the family safe, and you will do that. They need to wash hands, wear a mask, and follow instructions about social distancing, but they do not need to worry.
  • Don't talk about the virus around your child in ways that could scare them.
  • Don't listen to news when your child could hear.
  • If your child is exhibiting anxiety that began with the pandemic, take proactive steps to support them to learn to manage it. 

 

Risk: Acting Out

Kids who can't process their tears and fears directly will act out with bad behavior -- or worse, internalize their upset and become depressed or self-destructive.

Solution: Help your child work through big emotions.

  • Check in often. Listen, accept and validate whatever your child is feeling. Their disappointments are real, and they need to grieve as much as adults do. You don't have to solve what they're upset about; just make space for them to feel it and to share it with you. 
  • Keep communication open by empathizing and asking questions: "You seem worried. What would be the worst thing that could happen?”
  • Be patient. Children are stressed right now, and most of them can't articulate why. Instead, they show you, by acting out. Remember that when kids are at their most difficult, they often just need to cry. Connection will be more effective to prevent bad behavior than punishment. Here's Your Blueprint for Discipline During the Coronavirus Pandemic. And here's your cheatsheet on handling your child's anger.
  • If you're seeing lots of sibling conflict, coach kids to ask for space appropriately when they need it, and facilitate fun activities that help siblings bond.

 

Risk: Stressed Out Parents

Solution: Take care of you.

  • Parents who are calm, warm, responsive and patient are the most important predictor of emotional health for children of all ages, so taking care of you may be the most important thing you can do to protect your child.
  • Manage your own stress levels. That's tough during this stressful time, but each of us has the responsibility as a parent to manage our own stress. 
  • Model positive stress-management habits like regular physical exercise, meditation and emotional connection with other caring adults. Address any coping habits you've developed that aren't serving you, such as too much screen time or alcohol.

Babies

Risks:

  • Caregivers wearing masks can interfere with bonding, with the baby's ability to learn to read expressions, and with the baby's ability to match sounds with mouth shapes, which is important for speech development.
  • If the baby wears a mask, it can interfere with the baby's ability to produce sounds and engage caregivers, which impacts speech development as well as the baby's confidence that her needs will be met. 
  • Parental stress can cause a parent to be less responsive to their baby, whether because parent is using screens while with the baby, or simply more anxious than usual.

Solutions:

  • Arrange for Baby Care from relatives or other care-givers who have limited covid risk and can forgo masks while interacting with the baby.
  • Parental self-care, including regular physical exercise and mindfulness practices, will help you be more present with your baby.
  • Limit interacting with screens while caring for your baby.
  • Build face to face connection games into your routines with your baby.

Toddlers 

Risks:

  • Toddlers need to spend a lot of time outside, or their need to move and explore may lead to them tearing the home apart and driving parents crazy.
  • Increased screen usage to provide downtime for parents can negatively impact the toddlers' rapidly developing brain and reduce their ability to sustain attention to tasks.
  • Caregivers wearing masks can interfere with the toddlers ability to learn to read expressions and can negatively impact bonding.
  • Parents who are stressed by being with a toddler 24/7 can get into negative spirals with their toddler, where yelling leads to more defiance and tantrums.

Solutions:

  • Find ways to get your toddler outside to move and explore every day. If your community has low infection rates and allows it, go to playgrounds early in the day to avoid crowds and bring alcohol wipes. 
  • Limit screen time to the most important times of day for you, such as while you are on work calls or in the shower.
  • To keep your toddler occupied, set up an area in your home for messy play and make a list of Screen-Free Activities Your Toddler Can Do With Minimal Supervision. Set up at least one of these sensory activities every day. 
  • Find childcare from relatives or other care-givers who have limited covid risk and can forgo masks while interacting with your toddler.
  • Find another family with whom you feel safe setting up a play pod so that you can trade off childcare and have some time off.

The good news is that toddlers are still in the stage of parallel play and thus don't need engagement with other children as urgently as older children do. Parents and caregivers create the emotional weather, so if you can stay calm and connected and meet your toddler's needs for exploration, movement and mastery, your toddler is unlikely to suffer ill effects from this temporary isolation and will benefit from any increased closeness with you.

Preschoolers

Risks:

  • Preschoolers need to engage with other preschoolers to learn basic social skills, like taking turns.
  • Preschoolers need to move their bodies, and too much screen time can negatively affect their rapidly developing brains and their ability to concentrate.
  • Preschoolers are more likely to be in childcare or preschool, which means wearing masks, and may find that difficult. This may also lead to frequent scoldings by anxious teachers when they can't keep their mask on and follow social distancing rules, which can lead to negative feelings about school.

Solutions:

  • If you're home with your child, join a play group of families with similar parenting and sanitary practices so your child gets to engage with other children on a regular basis.
  • If you require your child to be in care, forgo school and instead join a small pod of families with whom you feel safe, so your child can engage with other children safely but with minimal social distancing requirements. Don't worry about academics. If you read to your child and have lots of discussions with them, your child will not suffer from a year's academic delay.
  • Get your preschooler out of the house daily to move their body in nature.
  • Be judicious with screen usage. Set up an area in your home for messy play and make a list of Screen-Free Activities Your Preschooler Can Do With Minimal Supervision

School-Age Kids

Risks:

  • Children required to go to school on zoom all day may disengage and lose interest in learning.
  • Children who go to school in person may find it stressful to maintain appropriate social distance practices and may find it difficult to feel comfortable at school and bond with teachers. 
  • Isolation can negatively impact social skills and the development of empathy for others. Kids don't necessarily need large group experiences, but they do need to play with other children one on one, which develops essential interpersonal skills.

Solutions:

  • Before online school every day, take your child outside for a walk or other physical activity, preferably in nature.
  • Before school each day, whether in person or online, and during online school breaks, spend some time roughhousing to get your child laughing. Laughter reduces your child's stress hormones so they have more inner resources to handle school stress.
  • On the days when your child goes to school in person, plan something small in the afternoon that your child can look forward to, that includes connection with you.
  • Plan regular online playdates for your child and other children. For instance, kids can meet up on Zoom and both make scary Halloween monsters from clay while they chat and tell each other scary monster stories. 
  • If your child has a good friend and you feel comfortable with their family's preventive health practices, set up regular playtimes for your child in person. 
  • Help your child sustain interest in virtual school by asking questions about what they're learning and letting them teach you. (Needless to say, make this fun, not a test or lecture.)
  • Be sure that you continue reading exciting books to your child on a daily basis so they continue to love books and reading, even though the school version of reading might not be exciting to them right now. 
  • Get your hands on a fun math program so your child can keep up with age-appropriate math skills in an enjoyable way, even if the school version of math isn't super exciting to them right now.

Preteens

Risks:

  • The risk of cyber bullying increases as kids spend more time online, especially in this age group as kids are just learning to use social media appropriately and are often unsupervised.
  • Preteens required to go to school on zoom all day may find it hard to share devices with siblings, or may disengage and lose interest in learning.
  • Preteens who go to school in person may find it stressful to maintain appropriate social distance practices.

Solutions:

  • Set up an accountability plan for online school that gives your child responsibility but involves you as much as necessary to keep your child on track with their learning.
  • Pay attention to your child's mood and behavior after they engage online, and find opportunities to listen discreetly to interactions. Make it a point to regularly discuss digital etiquette and ask your child how their social group is relating. If your child shares information about hurtful behavior, brainstorm solutions with them, and if necessary, ask the school for help. 
  • Be sure you have a schedule that allows each child access to devices as necessary for schoolwork.
  • Help your child sustain interest in virtual school by asking questions about what they're learning and letting them teach you. (Needless to say, make this fun, not a test or lecture.)
  • If your preteen goes to school in person, plan something small on those afternoons that your child can look forward to, that includes connection with you and a chance to offload stress from their day.
  • Brainstorm with your preteen how they can socialize with peers if they can't see friends in person. Consider relaxing some screen restrictions to allow more online connection time, and if your preteen can see a specific friend for walks in the park or other distanced socializing, support your preteen to meet up safely.

Teens

Risks:

  • Just at the age when teens need to be practicing independence and learning to evaluate risks, the pandemic has curtailed their ability to do so. 
  • Teens are designed to seek connection in their peer group, a need that is hard to meet virtually.
  • Teens who are already vulnerable to anxiety may find that the stress of the pandemic and the loss of their usual coping mechanisms such as hanging out with friends makes it even more challenging to manage their anxiety.
  • Teens may cope with stress in non-optimal ways, like video-gaming or doom-surfing social media until the wee hours.

Solutions:

  • Support your teen to develop a schedule that includes moving their body, daily time outside in nature, and sufficient sleep.
  • Find ways to cede control to allow your teen to practice making decisions and acting with more independence.
  • Encourage your teen to communicate digitally with friends in whatever ways work for them.
  • Remember that everyone is under stress right now, and choose your battles.
  • Empower your teen to take positive action against the pandemic, to stave off anxiety and powerlessness. Brainstorm a list of things they can do to help others, such as making Appreciation Kits for health care workers (Include chapstick, pens, water bottles, fun socks), Video chatting with elderly family members, or organizing for universal paid sick leave to ensure that people don’t have to choose between going to work sick and keeping a paycheck. When teens feel empowered to take action against things they perceive as unfair, they gain confidence and resilience.

 

The bad news is that you can't completely mitigate the risks of isolation. But there's good news, too. Kids are resilient, this too shall pass, and kids will eventually regain ground on the social and educational losses they're suffering now.

What's more, you have more power than you know. When your child looks back on this time, they'll remember how you stayed calm and kept your sense of humor (most of the time!), how you modeled graciousness in the face of uncertainty and apologized when you made mistakes, how you went for walks together or enjoyed family dance parties, how you made cookies together or grew seeds on your windowsill, how you set a tone in your home of love and fun.

Yes, that's a tall order, for any parent at any time -- and even more so during a pandemic. But even in tough times, we're the parents, and we make the weather in our homes. You don't have to be perfect. Just keep showing up and do your best. That's what your child will remember.

 



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