Have you ever noticed that some things change ever so slowly that you sometimes don’t notice that anything is different? For example, car brakes slowly wear over time and we usually don’t notice the change until either a mechanic calls it to our attention, or we begin to hear a squeak or realize that we may be pushing a little harder on the brake pedal. Similarly, even though it stays lighter out longer during spring, we usually do not notice the daily changes of a few minutes more daylight until it suddenly hits us that the days aren’t as short as they were during winter. When it comes to the psychological effects the pandemic has had on kids, I encourage you to view the changes experienced similar to the examples just mentioned in that many of the changes have been subtle, and as a result not always immediately observable. As a clinician who sees kids daily, while nearly every kid talks about how different things have been these last 2+ years, very few have been able to accurately identify and/or describe just how the pandemic has effected them psychologically — although they would certainly tell you it has effected them psychologically. A lot of kids are struggling with their mental health right now, but often these challenges are subtle and not always picked up on by parents, and as a consequence left untreated. Fortunately, COVID numbers continue to decrease and there are signs of getting back to normal, but will kids be mentally ready for these changes?
Getting back to “normal” again
What is “normal” when it comes to kids in schools across America today? For elementary school aged kids, all they have ever known is an education environment that includes masks, distancing, remote learning, and quarantines. Older kids who previously enjoyed school before the pandemic have a more traditional view of school, but even those memories have faded and now look more like a watercolor painting. And then there are questions that loom around what the “new normal” will look like in the future? In other words, will we see more use of technology and remote learning opportunities because we serendipitously discovered there is value in this modality?
Other questions kids have asked me directly:
- How far behind will I be in school when this ends?
- How has my learning experience during the pandemic been compromised, and what effect will this have on me getting into college?
- For college students, questions around how adequately they have been prepared for their careers is a major concern, especially in majors where missing important training can result in catastrophic future consequences.
- How do we socially interact normally again? Moving away from masks and social distancing is great, but what has been lost during these last years as it applies to social cues, body language, and reading non-verbals?
- What mental health issues have I dealt with these last few years, and how will I feel after the pandemic ends? Will things go back to normal psychologically?
- What information should I pay attention to as there seems to always be competing, conflicting views on just about everything these days?
The big takeaway here is that there are a lot of uncertainties for kids, and still not a lot of answers for them to help ease their anxieties. Lives that have been predominately lived online and in the privacy of home will soon begin to go back to in-person interactions, social experiences outside the home, and the need to revisit interpersonal relationship skills as a result of being in person again. The eventual transition back to “normal” is challenging enough for adults, leaving you to wonder how well kids will do as restrictions lessen?
While you may not need to fully understand all that has happened during these last few years of the pandemic, one thing you should accept is that most kids have paid a steep psychological price with respect to their education and friendships, and transitioning back to normal will be a challenge. Many kids are confused and anxious about not just what happened to them during the pandemic, but also what lies ahead as a result of the pandemic? For these reasons it is important that we do our part to provide mental health assistance when needed, as well as help teach important stress coping life skills in order to successfully navigate the future. It is also important that we not wait for kids to directly ask us for help, as many simply aren’t comfortable asking, and yet others who could benefit from mental health support may not recognize their own needs. We as parents and teachers can play a big, positive role in the transition back to normal, and the time to begin helping is now.