It is surreal to think that a 10-year-old child has now spent 10% of their life in lockdown, with many even picking up on subtle cues that talking to other adults or children could be dangerous due to the reactions of their parents.
These are not the only surprising statistics making the rounds. In the UK, 18% of children with probable mental health problems stated that they were afraid to leave their house as a result of the pandemic; when lockdowns were at their peak, more than 90% of the world’s schools were closed and a third of the world’s children had no access to education whatsoever. In one survey of children aged between 5 and 16, over a quarter said they had experienced disrupted sleep.
What effects will this have on our children long term? How will this affect their social growth and future interactions, and should we be panicking yet?
While we don’t have detailed answers to these questions, and perhaps won’t for many years and until much research has been undertaken, there are, as always, reasons to remain cautious while also retaining hope.
A Life Without Structure
Life has not been easy for children since much of the world was shut down. Forced indoors and behind masks, often with limited understanding as to why, they have been held hostage by boredom, anxiety and fear, able to intuit the emotions of their parents without the resilience or coping mechanisms their parents have spent years developing.
Of course, this is without mentioning those children at risk of violence or abuse or without access to school meals if they stay at home, not to mention in cultures where child labor and child marriage are still widely accepted. For many, this is a bleak, difficult time, and their main source of hope is found at schools, schools which are regularly and repeatedly closed in desperate attempts to contain the coronavirus.
However, developed countries are faring little better. Eating disorders and sleeping pill prescriptions have reportedly increased in the UK, and although schools are using technology remotely to increase opportunity, the risks associated with cyber bullying, misinformation and unregulated content increase proportionally with said opportunity.
Despite UNICEF recommending that schools not be closed, 30 more governments shut their schools down in January 2021, thereby increasing the risk as another 24 million go without education. The lack of a school and social life has also adversely impacted many children’s physical fitness. In their appeal to governments, UNICEF argued that without schools, governments needed to introduce safeguarding measures to better protect their students and prevent them falling into many of the traps outlined above, but governments have been slow to act.
The lack of services has also adversely affected children. The collapse of medical and social support systems, as well as organized social activities and state safeguarding structures, has seen many children cut adrift in a sea of introversion. Governments have often focused on adult care, recognizing the need to keep their economies functioning in a global market hobbled by a rampant virus, and this has been to the detriment of children’s health everywhere.
A Life Without Others
It’s no surprise to anyone that children have reported that they have missed physical closeness, being able to hug their family and friends, and being able to celebrate important milestones. What does this absence do to a child’s brain?
Philip Fisher, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, decided to find out. On April 6, 2020, Fisher sent out his first digital questionnaires to a small group of families in America. He continued to send questionnaires weekly until August, whereupon he switched to biweekly. It turns out that the children had not handled the changes well.
Fisher noted progressively severe symptoms. There was clear regression in behavior overall, with once-independent children unable to cope when their parents left the room and others wetting beds having already successfully completed toilet training. By week 12 of the pandemic, almost 4 out of every 5 parents surveyed stated that their children were more defiant than before and almost half said their children were more anxious; and while the severity of symptoms has fluctuated, Fisher noted that defiance has never dropped below 70%.
There have been other factors which haven’t helped either. The wildfires in California meant that some families were even more restricted than they had been by just the coronavirus. In Hubei, China, children who were quarantined for just 30 days recorded significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety. The list of publications which claims that the impact has been extremely negative for children is lengthy, and Fisher himself believes that these children will carry this experience with them throughout the rest of their lives.
Fisher’s second concern is that child development relies on the tennis concept of ‘serve and return’, as he puts it. This is the idea that as children engage with adults, they receive a response, be it praise, admonishment, affection. Babies who cry receive a bottle of milk or a hug and a kiss; toddlers who smile or hug their parents receive affection in return.
Where this becomes a problem is when parents are confined to their homes with hyperactive children unable to attend school and offices squashed into spare rooms, or sometimes bedrooms. With such an overabundance of stimuli, parents have become burned out by the pressures of parenting full time while working. As a result, parents are finding it difficult to ‘return’ their children’s serves, and as a result the children aren’t receiving the responses they need for healthy development.
These ‘returns’ are even more essential for healthy development in times of adversity. If a child, already stressed out and confused by their confinement, receives a cruel, stressed or no response, this can lead to problems with both cognition and learning as well as behavioral issues, and addictions are known to be long-term consequences of such negative responses.
This is what is known as toxic stress. Some researchers have already drawn links between the Great Depression and COVID-19, with many pointing out that while resilience was important in both scenarios, the children who fared better following that period were those whose parents ‘returned’ more due to experiencing less difficulty during that time and therefore suffering from less anxiety, stress and depression.
The Onus on Parents: A Relief and a Burden
While this all seems overwhelmingly negative, there is good news. For a start, although social interaction with other children is important, researchers tend to agree that parental relationships are the most important for young children. This is great news in many respects: although children will miss their classmates and playground buddies, the developmental interactions they need most can be facilitated through interactions with their parents.
However, this does mean there is an onus on parents to keep giving care, affection and attention even when they’re completely exhausted and worn down by the pressures of quarantine. It is important to keep responding and reacting to a child’s need for attention and affection despite the overwhelming nature of confinement during a pandemic.
For some experts, the lack of interaction with friends presents small concerns, such as linguistic development and viewing other children as dangerous, but these risks can be mitigated by the attitudes of parents as they unconsciously lead their children through this time.
Is this too much responsibility for parents though? How is a parent supposed to work, provide for their family and maintain their own sanity while at the same time safeguarding the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of their children?
Thankfully, organizations are starting to intervene and put pressure on governments to take action. UNICEF has both urged governments not to close schools whilst simultaneously releasing guidance on how children can be supported through the pandemic through social care and education.
It’s also been reported that in cultures where young children don’t see many people other than siblings and cousins, their social skills are at the same level as their peers and they can interact as well as anyone else. Concerns about constant mask wearing may be overblown as well: some experts reckon that children may become better verbal communicators and will learn to look into people’s eyes more rather than it leading to any negative consequences.
The biggest indicator that you should be seeking a pediatrician’s help is when a distressed child stays distressed for weeks and months. If you’re surviving with the occasional down moment, in all likelihood your child is surviving too, and although this situation is not ideal, your child’s development will continue to progress normally.
So as the world starts opening back up again, give your child a hug. They have survived this long and will flourish once more!