After nearly two years of lockdown interruptions Ive been frequently asked my professional opinion on the effects of Covid-19 measures upon children. There have been many opinions on the subject, and I hesitated to contribute to them. The questions continue to come. Here are my observations of children who are in distress due to the pandemic.
Children need to feel connected
First and foremost, this is with caregivers and family, then with friends groups and, in adolescence, with a larger circle and their independence. Children learn a lot from being around children and at school.
Parents know that it is not the same for every child. Some children miss their friends and some are sad without them. Parents may see their child as less stressed, more secure and happier at home. While some children enjoy face-to-face interaction, others prefer to connect through social media or gaming. Parents often notice that their children spend more time online than their friends. This could be due to their preferences or because of factors beyond their control.
Even children who spend a lot time alone, even shy ones, need to feel accepted and included. Rejection and exclusion hurt. Children with disabilities require connection and respect for their safety, social, intellectual, and emotional needs.
Children can also feel guilty for the bad things that happen. For example, if they bring Covid-19 to their family, even though they did nothing wrong, they may feel guilty and take responsibility for what happens.
Many teens have had dark thoughts in the past year. I've also seen many self-harming adolescents. While some can easily describe their emotions, others find it difficult. Most people, however, open up the possibility of making a connection, even if it is only a small one. We can only work together to find a way forward through this connection.
Children are curious, observant and intuitive.
They absorb more information than adults, which I believe is a surprise. I am amazed at how much they see, from current affairs to peer, classroom and household interactions. Many people's understanding is often greater than their ability or capacity to express themselves. When I hear about depression, hopelessness, and low self-worth, my question is if it's because of lockdowns. They shake their heads.
Does it make up part of the problem?
Yes. But it's not all that important.
I have received thoughtful and sophisticated assessments from some of them about the effects that the pandemic has had on their lives (school, relationships, sports). They have weighed the negatives against the benefits (family time and online learning content, assessments). They have observed the changing abilities of others and themselves. When asked about teachers, they said they are trying but don't like zooming. Online friendships are both good and bad.
Many people have a keen awareness of the thoughts and opinions of adults. Some people have reservations about worrying more about the important adults in their life. They also see the meta overview of the worrying-about-worrying loop.
The short answer to the question about mental health and Covid is "it's not that simple."
Children are open to new ideas, new ways and new approaches
They can understand complex concepts at an age-appropriate understanding (think fairness, equity, climate science and marriage equality, sun safety, privacy, and even the concept of sun safety). I was surprised at how quickly they were able to grasp concepts like viral contagion, airborne diseases, and how the lungs work. Many of them remember when they were younger and can recall how they used to have fun with pandemics. They can talk about ways to protect themselves and others. They are quick to learn and flexible. I've also discussed the impact of wearing masks in appointments with colleagues, and how it affects our relationships. It is something that most children can discuss. Many don't mind. I have yet to see an adolescent not wearing a mask when asked since the pandemic. Adults are more consistent.
Children are more than one thing
This is crucial. Different children have different needs and different priorities. Each child and adolescent can tell when they're genuinely interested and when they're being heard and seen as they are. Sometimes children are referred to as a homogeneous mass. Children can easily be aware of when they are being co-opted to a larger adult agenda, even if they don't buy it.
Children have a lot to say, and we need to hear it. We need to hear it. Our children are our future, as we all know.
Beyond Blue in Australia can be reached at 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline at 13 11 14; MensLine at 1300 789 9978. The charity Mind can be reached on 0300 123 39393 or 0800 111111 in the UK. ChildLine and ChildLine are available on 0800 1111. Mental Health America can be reached at 800-273-8255 in the USA.