Written by Maggie Hartzler, LISW, CTRP-C – School Based Program Manager
Mask mandates. Zoom fatigue. Social distancing. Quarantine. Variants.
Prior to 2020 these terms, weren’t part of our everyday language. And they certainly weren’t part of our children’s language. But now, about eighteen months after the coronavirus reared its ugly head in our world, this is the reality we’re living in – and the reality we are raising our children in.
The abrupt shift in our culture since March 2020 has had countless implications for our country, but none greater than the impact on children. This August, children started their THIRD school year of the pandemic. Yes – third. Students missed the last part of the 2019-2020 school year, spent the 2020-2021 school year with COVID, and now have started the 2021-2022 school year with spiking numbers, vaccine and mask debates, and continued disruption.
Three school years in, and it’s got me wondering – are the kids all right?
As a mental health professional and a mother, I worry how deeply this pandemic is disrupting the development of children. Kids already impacted by trauma, poverty, racial inequities, and other adverse childhood experiences are now faced with the impacts of this pandemic, too. The education gap that exists in our country is only widening, with disadvantaged students more negatively impacted by changes in schooling (outlined in a report from the Department of Education). Additionally, it’s estimated that nearly 52,000 children have lost a parent to COVID. The loss and stress children are collectively experiencing is unprecedented.
This is stressful for adults. And when things are stressful for adults, it’s children who often feel it the most. If the grown up at home is stressed because they lost a job, lost a friend, feel sick, or can’t make rent – kids know it. No matter how brave of a face you put on, our kids are good at feeling the energy of the grown ups they love most. Caring for yourself is crucial right now – be it therapy, a walk with friends, or spending time meditating, praying, or in nature. Modeling this for your kids is great, too. Saying, “Things have been stressful. Do you want to go for a walk with me?”
When things are hard for kids, we often see less than desirable behaviors. Irritability, low frustration tolerance, depressed mood, lack of motivation, etc. can lead to what adults see as “problem behaviors”. Zoning out on their phone rather than unloading the dishwasher? Full-blown tantrum when asked to do a minor task? It’s all heightened when kids are stressed. When we see these “problem behaviors”, giving kids grace will go a long way in helping them cope with the world they currently live in.
The impact of this pandemic is yet to be seen. Three school years is nearly a high school education. Three school years is the extent of a seven year old’s educational career. The impact of hardship for three consecutive school years is far-reaching. To address the needs, we need to invest now in mental health supports, educational supports, quality health care, and actions that promote the health of all communities.
It’ll take courage, empathy, and faith, but kids deserve it.