We recently passed the anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 shutdown. Thankfully, we’re also seeing rays of hope as vaccination rates increase and infection rates decrease. Much has been said about how life has changed for us all, and there is plenty of debate surrounding what has changed permanently and what might return from the “old normal.” However, one area where there is little debate is the significant impact the pandemic has had on children in a variety of capacities.
The most overwhelming issues for kids have been emotional ones, stemming from the varied levels of loss which have been thrust upon them. It has come in the form of small disappointments, such as lost birthday parties and play dates. Others had things taken from them suddenly, such as high school playoffs, proms, musical performances and graduation ceremonies. For more than a half million families across our country, those “suddenly taken” things included loved ones: parents, grandparents, friends, teachers — even siblings.
This kind of loss could be overwhelming for children under normal circumstances, but to see it happening so frequently and indiscriminately (even though the virus and its fallout has impacted low-income and minority communities disproportionately), it’s been far more than many of them can handle. Grieving the losses of loved ones and lifestyles has caused a sharp rise in children’s mental health struggles, with the isolation associated causing significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression, according to a recent study by the National Institutes of Health.
Support of young people during the pandemic has been critical to their ability to process their disappointments, frustrations and grief. Research has shown that the lack of exercise, play and socialization could lead to increased risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in children. The change that has occurred in their natural sleep habits can also take a toll on them physically and emotionally.
The absence of social supports normally present in places like schools, day care centers, workplaces and houses of worship is also evident. Tragically, this lack of regular interaction with community members has resulted in increases in non-accidental traumas: i.e., child abuse and other forms of domestic violence.
While all of this may sound insurmountable, one way to help the children in your lives is to discuss with them some of the positives which have been borne out of this pandemic. These may seem at first like only silver linings, but they’re in truth massive steps forward for us as a society, especially in terms of their benefits to children.
For one, the world has proven that many people and professions are fully capable of remote work settings. Thus, while a return to normal may include a return to the office for some, those with small and school-aged children are more likely to be granted a hybrid work schedule with their employers going forward. This means more parents will be able to spend more time with their kids, helping them learn, guiding their decisions, and simply having fun with them.
Another innovation to come from this tragedy has been the seismic advances in telemedicine. This has wide-reaching potential for children all over the world. It’s especially encouraging for families who don’t have access to reliable transportation, live in rural settings or face other barriers to in-person healthcare and wellness. In fact, telemedicine and the pandemic have oddly come together to bring about another unexpected benefit: more mental health startups. Because healthcare professionals and journalists shined a brighter light on the mental health issues people of all ages have experienced during the last year, entrepreneurs have begun creating more supply to address this heightened demand.
Then there is the vaccine itself, whose rapid development was the result of 20 years of virology research that was foundational in allowing this to occur. It’s an example of how far science has come. It showed that our healthcare system, pharmaceutical industry and government can actually work well together when united in their motivations. And, it’s a hopeful sign that our world will be in good hands when our children become the leaders — and parents — of future generations.