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One of the few pieces of good news about the coronavirus — which has caused more than 100,000 deaths worldwide — is that children, though not immune, appear to face substantially less risk of developing severe symptoms.
A decreased threat from infection does not mean that kids are protected from the impacts of the virus. Like everyone else, their lives have been upended by social distancing measures aimed at controlling the outbreak. Schools have closed, activities have been canceled and in-person visits with friends have been put on pause.
The lockdown has imposed an unprecedented social experiment on the country’s children that could have lingering effects long after the pandemic has been contained.
Why there’s debate
The isolation caused by stay-at-home orders has caused a spike in mental health challenges among adults, especially those with preexisting conditions. The impact that social distancing has on kids is less understood. In some ways children are particularly vulnerable to the trauma of having their lives turned upside down because their social lives are so reliant on school and other activities. Depending on their age, missing out on daily interactions with peers and teachers can stunt their emotional and social development, child psychologists say. Children may not fully understand the details of what’s happening but can grasp the fear and stress they witness around them.
Research on kids who experienced traumatic events like Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial collapse suggests the emotional weight can stay with them for many years. The impact will likely vary significantly based on a child’s situation. School-age children and adolescents are likely to be affected the most, experts say. Children in unstable home situations are particularly vulnerable.
While some kids will certainly struggle through this period, parents shouldn’t assume their own children are destined to be traumatized by social distancing, child development experts say. Research shows that children can be extremely resilient when faced with changes in their lives. There also may be some positive impacts. Kids learn important skills like the ability to adapt, creativity and persistence when forced into imperfect circumstances, experts say. Time at home can also promote important connections with parents and siblings that can have a lasting positive effect on children.
Some experts believe the duration of the lockdown will matter significantly in how kids are able to cope. A few weeks of isolation may not have much of an effect, but months of extended isolation could be problematic. It’s unclear how long social distancing measures might be required, but lawmakers in some parts of the country have begun discussing plans for how best to reopen normal activities.
Children are experiencing the same level of trauma as adults
“If the world has learned anything in the past week, it’s that mortality is only one risk of this crisis. ...This is likely a once-in-a-generation disaster, and it will affect every domain of human life. It will be traumatic. And trauma always falls hardest on the youngest among us.” — Vann R. Newkirk II, Atlantic
Kids internalize the stress they see around them
“Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to stress created by news media coverage of negative events and frightening rhetoric. Parents and other close adults serve as models for how children and youth will react, even if those adults don’t recognize or want that responsibility. If adults around them are panicking, young people are likely to do so as well.” — Ralph Cash, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
School-age children face the most significant challenges
“The kids who are likely to suffer the most are in late childhood and adolescence. Young children are learning the basics of being social beings, and their parents and siblings can provide most of the input they need, while older children and adolescents are learning to navigate complex social groups of peers.” — Developmental psychologist Amy Learmonth to Healthline
Most kids will be fine, but some will experience acute trauma
“The vast majority of youth will be resilient in the face of even severe stress or trauma. However, there are some children that may experience some lasting mental health effects. This becomes more likely if they have experienced a direct threat to their own safety...or experience a death or loss due to the coronavirus.” — Dr. Tali Raviv to Fox News
The negative impacts will be concentrated among vulnerable children
“One long-term effect of the Covid-19 pandemic will be to leave many children behind, perhaps permanently limiting their opportunities in life. At the same time, the disruption will barely affect others and even let a few pull ahead. In short, it will exacerbate inequality.” — Andreas Kluth, Bloomberg
Months away from school can have a lasting academic impact
“We know kids in low socioeconomic communities lose two to three months in reading and math skills over a normal summer. With schools letting out now and potentially not returning before the end of the school year, learning loss may be profound.” — Save the Children vice president Betsy Zorio to Politico
Some children are trapped in unsafe homes
“Entire families are sheltering at home, often in close quarters. Anxiety about health, education and finances is high. Children aren’t seeing the teachers, counselors and other adults who would normally raise concerns about their well-being. The Covid-19 pandemic has created the conditions for a rise in child abuse that could go unchecked.” — Nina Agrawal, New York Times
School closures rob kids of stability and routine
“Schools provide structure and support for families and communities. A day-care or school closure means lost learning time and disruptions in family routines. Closing schools also could deprive more than 20 million students nationwide who rely on schools for breakfast and lunch.” — Soojin Oh Park, Seattle Times
Children are learning important ‘soft skills’
“Right now, our kids are getting a crash-course in patience, resilience, communication, conflict-resolution, compromise, creative thinking, empathy and mindfulness. These are soft skills we practice to a certain degree with them every day, but right now everything is heightened.” — Meghan Moravcik Walbert, Lifehacker
It’s important that adults avoid assuming that their kids are struggling
“All of this also really depends on what your child is like, as a person. Multiple experts I spoke with recommended trying to discern how your child is actually feeling, rather than projecting your own feelings of loss or loneliness—so omnipresent at this time—on your child’s experience.” — Rebecca Onion, Slate
Parents shouldn’t overstate the impact of this period of isolation
“I wouldn’t want parents to think, ‘This is scarring my child for life.’ I think that’s unnecessary and unrealistic.” — Child psychologist Rona Novick to Newsday
Kids are stronger than we give them credit for
“The good news for parents is that psychologists, specifically psychologists who work on childhood trauma, are more or less unanimous on one specific point: Children are incredibly resilient. Most can recover even from profound traumas.” — Patrick A. Coleman, Fatherly
Time away from academic expectations can be helpful
“Maybe this is the perfect time to call a timeout on the academic rat-race that was never healthy or fair in the first place.” — Jennie Weiner, New York Times
Today’s adolescents and teenagers thrive in online social circles
“At a time when mental health professionals are increasingly concerned over the impact of unexpected and unprecedented isolation, children could be the ones who make it through with the least trauma. Because unlike older Americans, adolescents are used to communicating largely through virtual media. It’s their normal.” — Anna Bryson, USA Today
Removing heavy structure from kids’ lives can be beneficial
“Now that we’re spending so much time at home, I predict that it won’t be just our houseplants and pets that will thrive. Upending the tightly scheduled days of parents and children has provided more time for an activity that allows children to flourish: play.” — Christine McLean, The Conversation
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