When COVID-19 was discovered in the U.S. and assessed as dangerous, measures were taken to stem its spread and keep Americans safe. As a result, people in populated areas chose (or were mandated) to stay at home as much as possible, wash hands often, wear masks while doing essential shopping and keep a safe distance from others. Last March, many expected this virus would be short-lived, like seasonal flu strains in past years. Not so.
Non-essential shops, favorite clubs and activities, sports and even houses of worship were shuttered. Nursing homes and prisons were key incubators for viral spread and death. Confusion was engendered by mostly well meaning health experts and government authorities – with conflicting recommendations to manage the disease. In addition to eradicating COVID-19. key goals included minimizing harm to businesses/jobs, education and the economy, causing much contention in this unprecedented situation.
The deleterious results of our prolonged home sequestration we are seeing among people of all ages, including families with children, was not a focus early on; but are understandable and predictable. Except for the most introverted among us, humans in free countries are not used to isolated or restricted living. While the most resilient and creative among us have found ways to cope well enough, negative effects on adults’ mental health and the normal developmental path for many young children and teens have increased. To some degree, medical problems have arisen or been exacerbated as well.
Medical care for non-COVID illnesses and injuries was put on the back burner — and elective surgeries postponed in all but emergency situations. People with cancer diagnoses, chronic heart problems, diabetes, lung diseases and more, were treated via telemedicine and kept out of hospitals for fear of contamination. Unfortunately, this led to some deaths and deteriorated conditions. As months rolled by, hospitals separated patients with COVID-19 from non-virus patients successfully.
Home sequestration has had a big influence on Americans’ emotional, spiritual and mental health as well. For cohabiting younger and retired couples, much more time together at home was enriching for some, but disruptive for others. Separations and even divorces have resulted where previous issues worsened. Singles used to living alone experienced limited access to their friends, causing isolation and in some cases, loneliness.
Much stress was alleviated in larger, quieter, living spaces, where adults and children could choose to congregate, study diligently in relative quiet or choose time alone for relaxation. Where back yards / outdoor terraces, swimming pools or lakes, parks, beloved pets and safe streets are part of the picture, life has been easier for those willing to take precautions. Some children were able to learn online and parents to work from home – but others lost their jobs and income. Many workers in ‘essential’ jobs risk disease exposure daily, including doctors / nurses, other healthcare workers, cops, firefighters, EMTs, in those employed in the food chain (cooks, servers, truckdrivers, supermarket labor, etc.).
We all react to unwanted change in different ways. Some are able to generally ‘go with the flow,’ assess risks realistically, and patiently await a light at the end of the tunnel. Others lose sleep worrying, catastrophizing about the worst that might happen. Habitual pessimists see a scary tunnel at the end of the light.
Many fear for their physical safety on the street, especially in cities where violent protests have taken place. Fears about monetary insolvency, loss of family businesses and jobs – with no solution in sight — all terrorize peoples’ lives to the point of despair. People also panic from constant news reports of worsening pandemic statistics and the constant stream of often sensationalized news.
Americans undergoing in-person physical therapy had visits cancelled; and those in group or individual psychotherapy switched to tele-visits or fewer visits. Bored people ate more and gained weight; drug addiction, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and suicide statistics all spiked.
For infants and babies under two, it’s a pleasant surprise to see another little one their size in person, on Skype or Zoom. Tykes have few expectations – and this is a time when they learn whether they can rely on parents and others – that they can trust others that they will not be abandoned. But very young offspring tend to mirror adults’ moods, and may pick up on anxiety, depression vs. calmness and joy.
For pre-school toddlers and older kids (age 2-8), there may be separation anxiety when they go to school or to visit others for the first time in months. Because they may not have had a chance for much ‘socialization’ before the pandemic, they may be clingy, and need guidance how to interact with other kids and grownups. They may wonder why people are wearing masks and how a virus can make folks ill. Simple answers to their questions, along with reassurance from parents, will generally suffice, so as not to engender fear. To encourage self-pride, a parent might ask small children to pick out their own clothing each day and help with simple chores. This gives a feeling of accomplishment, and most kids (and adults) do best with structure. Younger ones may have relapses in potty training or sentence structure. Sequestration has put severe limits on this stage of their lives, where they’re testing their own autonomy and initiative as growing individuals with family, friends and teachers.
The middle childhood years (age 9-12) are particularly tough in semi-isolation, because this is when most youngsters gauge their own competence in school and with peers. With limited interactions in social situations and team sports, they may have doubts about their own ability to collaborate, cooperate, compete – in short – to ‘be accepted,’ ‘fit in’ and ‘make it in the world.’
Individual personalities and social roles are further developed during adolescence (age 13-19), when friendships and early romantic relationships normally form. Normal hormonal surges, desire to separate from parental control, and anger at not having large numbers of other tweens and teens to interact with due to pandemic restrictions, slows their progress. Some may act out, lose focus, lose interest in schoolwork – and generally feel sad and stunted.
While there’s no ideal way to successfully parent children under normal circumstances – the same good guidelines one would normally use also apply now. Encourage hobbies and new interests, creative and artistic endeavors. Introduce youngsters to as many activities, variety and other people as possible within accepted health parameters. Model patience and calm– and offer hope as the weeks and months drag on – de-escalating any conflicts as best one can. If the family is so inclined, include spirituality and online services — and listen long and intently to what is on youngsters’ minds without judgement or criticism. Rationed video games and computer time, plus traditional games, movies and true communication will do much to prevent boredom or despair.
Self-help books and online programs addressing specific problems families or individuals may be facing can be enormously helpful. Reaching out to teachers, social workers, clergy and mental health professionals, as needed, can provide positive ideas and needed support. It can also be productive to ask kids what they would like to talk about or do.
At this time, no one can predict the trajectory of COVID-19, when infections may wane and how our future lives may change due to the pandemic. Social unrest and the upcoming elections add to life’s complexity. While few embrace involuntary change, those who have been resilient with past life trials will likely fare the best. Hang in there, everyone!