COVID has been hard. Many lost businesses and jobs. Many even lost loved ones and an unprecedented number lost their lives. There has been isolation, lack of contact with family, no physical contact, food shortages and it has all gone on for much longer than anyone could have predicted in the beginning.
The toll has been great but, I believe there is a pandemic after the pandemic. It is a silent pandemic among our children, one that will take us years to fully comprehend the extent of.
The Science Behind What is Happening
Let’s look at the science that has been proven through the latest research studies.
We know from child development that a child’s cognitive ability to process and understand complex information is more limited than an adults. They work in a space that we call “concrete operations.” In other words, an abstract principle like 1 + 1 = 2 is foreign to a young child, but if they see 1 banana + 1 banana = 2 bananas and they can see and feel those objects, that makes sense.
One study done at Cambridge University in September of 2020 stated that because of this limitation “it makes it more difficult for children to understand abstract information such as a “viral” health related threat. The problem though is that their emerging beliefs are malleable and are shaped and influenced by significant others in their lives.”
As children move into adolescence their own ideas and beliefs start to develop but they are heavily influenced by their peers.
Their cognitive abilities develop so they can make sense of the world and events in more abstract, complex ways. The study stated that “adolescents are also more about to take ownership over health-relevant behaviors but that adolescents and childhood are still sensitive in terms of their formative development and their understanding of the world.”
Another study published in August 2021 by Sheri Madigan, from the Department of Psychology University of Calgary, Alberta, stated “the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 have doubled, compared with pre-pandemic estimates.”
In late 2020 the National Child Traumatic Stress Network explained the adverse effect of COVID of the psychological responses according to stages in life. They explained
At this stage parents could expect to see manifestations of:
- loss of appetite
- increased tantrums and complaints
- ambivalent anxiety
From the Ages of 6 to 12 Years
Higher rates of these behaviors could be seen:
- sleep and appetite problems
- somatic symptoms, or loss of interest in peers
- excessive attachment to parents
Adolescents 13 – 18 Years
In addition to physical symptoms higher rates of:
- sleep problems or isolation
- increased or decreased energy
- apathy or inattention to behaviors related to health care
In a Spanish study by Rodríguez in 2020, it stated that “confinement leads to a loss of routine, a reduction in social and physical contact, frustration, boredom and a sense of loneliness that can be difficult to manage.”
And in an extensive study done in February of 2021 through the Universities of Mallaga and Alicante on the effects of COVID-19 on Spanish children, they found the “part of society that is extremely susceptible to isolation is the “child and adolescent population since the contexts in which they live and develop are altered.”
It further stated that “emotional stress has neurobiological consequences (so brain and body) such as increased rates of anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and acute stress.”
Restorative sleep occurs because of a dynamic biopsychosocial balance – bio (the body) psychological (the mind). Balance between the two of these is needed for restorative sleep to happen.
With added stress, anxiety, fear, and depression impacting on that balance, we end up with sleep disorders, or a disruption of that restorative sleep.
So we are sleeping lightly and not getting that restorative sleep that our minds and bodies need.
The Spanish study went on to say along with emotional and sleep difficulties, “it is not unreasonable to think that cognitive processes can be affected in situations of confinement. It has been observed that stress, both chronic and acute, affects cognitive processes governed by the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC).”
So What is the Prefrontal Cortex Responsible For?
The processes and functions of the executive system, so:
- working memory,
- self-regulation of emotions,
- cognitive flexibility,
- organization and planning,
- decision-making, and
- goal-orientated behaviors
So Basically Our Children Are Not Able to:
- remember things
- be able to control their emotions – their response might be completely out of balance with the situation – so something small might happen and they end up in complete meltdown
- They can’t be flexible in their thinking which brings more stress when things don’t go as they think they will
- They can’t organize themselves or their thoughts
- They can’t make decisions and
- They no longer have goals or a desire to achieve something – they are apathetic about moving forward.
Several studies prior to COVID have linked the role of these functions as mediators between perceived stress and memory complaints.
For a lot of children and adolescents, there is a lot of perceived stress associated with COVID. Even though they may not have been in a heavily affected area, that doesn’t mean that their perceived stress wasn’t high.
Another study prior to COVID found that children who have been quarantined during pandemic diseases are more likely to develop not only acute stress and adjustment disorders but also overall physical pain.
In a Chinese study of children 3 – 18 years in the Shaanxi Province in China during COVID, 30% of the children studied in isolation or quarantine met the clinical criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
This study also showed that children aged 3 to 6 years old were more likely than older children to manifest symptoms such as anxiety and fear that family members could become infected.
Children aged 6 to 18 were more likely to show inattention and persistent inquiry.
Clinging, inattention, and irritability were the most severe psychological conditions demonstrated by children in all age groups.
All of the different studies found that the most at risk were those with previous mental pathology, pregnant females, the elderly, health workers, and children and adolescents.
So What Can We Do?
Our children and adolescents are most at risk and also the least able to implement strategies. They will not be able to navigate the aftermath of this pandemic by themselves. They need our help.
We Need to be Observant
We need to take note of something that is wrong. We know our children better than anyone. We can tell when things are not going right for them and we may have noticed a slow change in behavior, or sudden outbursts; maybe they don’t cope with normal tasks like they use to. Whatever it is, take notice and recognize these could be symptoms of all they have been through.
We Need to be Patient
We have been going through this for a while now and we have a way to go yet. Behavior in our children is not going to change overnight. They aren’t going to suddenly be less anxious, or less fearful, have less depression or start sleeping more restoratively.
Anything we do is going to take time and there may be difficult behavior to navigate while on that journey to healing. This might even mean finding our own outlet and support group to help us deal with the process while we are going through it. We can’t forget to be patient with ourselves as well as our children.
We Need to be Present
Being in the moment is a really constructive skill to develop. Forget what was just going on at work, or what you have to do later that day, or even the behavior your child may have demonstrated earlier that morning that you are still struggling with.
Be in that moment with your child. Deal with the now. What is the underlying issue to the behavior you are seeing? Look deeper than what you are experiencing on the surface.
We Need to be Supportive
Our children are not going to be able to navigate this post COVID pandemic by themselves. They don’t have the cognitive abilities to do that at the best of times but now they are compromised by the circumstances we have lived through.
Remember the prefrontal cortex and what it is responsible for? All of those executive functions and processing that they need to get through this. You will have to be their navigator, their cheer leader, their mentor and their loved one who leads them back to a place of healing and calm.
Help is Here
If you need help with further understanding key child development principles and strategies on how to help your child (whether they be small or a teen) then take a look at our resources for The Silent Pandemic: What you won’t notice and your children can’t tell you.
It will explain further what is going on and give you activities and strategies to help you child cope with all they are going through.
Our other short courses will also help you understand how to not only how to get them back to a place of equilibrium, but how to excel and thrive. These will teach you more about their development and give you lots of activities that you can do in your own home (or classroom if you are a teacher).
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