While the pandemic has been a burden to all of us, perhaps no group has been more impacted than kids. As a professional who treats kids daily, I have witnessed firsthand the chronic effects of COVID on kids, especially as it applies to school, social relationships, and overall mental health. Unfortunately, a lot of issues are lost on parents who have their own unique challenges with their jobs, managing their kid’s school schedules, and addressing their own mental health needs.
The impact of COVID on kids
This year is the third year in a row kids have had to contend with COVID complications and the impact the virus has had on traditional learning. Breaking this down further, it means that kids in second grade have never known school without masks and remote learning, and juniors in high school have experienced almost all of their time in high school dealing not only with atypical learning methods, but also major changes to their social interactions, athletics, activities, and other extra-curricular experiences (i.e. school dances). In addition to changes in the classroom, increasingly more kids have voiced to me their frustrations seeing people fight getting vaccinated, disregard masking, and intentionally create chaos at school board meetings — all the while as kids continue to do everything that is asked of them in order to get through these difficult times.
Now before anyone becomes defensive and begins arguing over the observations I have just described, remember, these are the genuine concerns being offered to me by kids, so you can say they shouldn’t feel this way, but the fact is many do. These kids have been through a lot, and many are losing hope when even the most basic guidelines are ignored. Kids are also witnessing doctors, scientists, and other experts now routinely ridiculed, and sometimes even physically threatened. Again, all of this is having a dramatic effect on many kids, directly contributing to many of the mental health challenges kids now experience. Some kids have even asked me “Why would I want to become a doctor/scientist/helping professional and have to deal with all of that?” Do we really want kids to steer kids away from one day becoming our next generation of doctors, nurses, teachers, and other important professions?
Learned helplessness and COVID
When humans believe they have no control over their circumstances, learned helplessness can set in and create pessimism, mental fatigue, and eventually lead to quitting the activity/endeavor. Many kids are currently learning to become helpless to their schooling situations, as the ongoing efforts they have made (i.e. getting vaccinated, masking, distancing, canceling events, and learning from home) do not appear to be helping their situation in any measurable way as we hit year 3 of the pandemic. In fact, not only are kids losing hope about going back to “normal” school again, but many have developed serious mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation. And for anyone thinking right now that kids shouldn’t feel any of these things, the reality is they do!
Tips to help
- Create open unconditional positive regard. These are especially tough times for kids, making it important to love and support your kids at all times. Kids will sometimes feel stress over things you might find trivial, but it is important to love them regardless of how they view situations and challenges. By creating an environment of unconditional positive regard, trust develops, leading to a greater feeling of resiliency and coping by means of support from others.
- Validate feelings rather than argue kids shouldn’t feel a certain way. Similar to the previous point, try to validate how your kid feels rather than telling her how she should feel. For example, while you might not think social distancing at school is a big deal, your child might find that it is negatively impacting the way he interacts with friends, leaving him to feel depressed as a result. Rather than tell him he is over-reacting, try to instead understand what it must be like to go to school during these unusual times.
- Take feedback seriously. Watch for signs that your child might not be handling the pandemic well, and act on your feelings when things don’t seem right. Ask important questions about your child’s safety, and if you learn that your child is really struggling be sure to examine mental health options in your community.
It might be time that we begin to think first about what kids are going through at this time, and the unusual circumstances they continue to face as they try and enjoy what many would consider the best years of their lives. While there will always be outlier opinions, the overwhelming majority of doctors and scientists who study and treat disease have provided the best practices to restore hope in kids that they will once again go to school without masks, laugh with friends in close company, and enjoy sporting events and school dances again. Lets stop fighting for a political team, and do all that is neccessary to restore kid’s hope and faith that we can get the job done.