Few people on the planet have been unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the physical effects of the virus are only the beginning of the problems it has caused. In addition to the health concerns of COVID itself, there have also been mental health struggles that have been widespread across society. Nowhere have these been more concerning than in children and teenagers, as our youth have had to struggle through disruptions to their education, social lives, and personal development. The fear and uncertainty related to the virus, the effects of staying indoors, and the lack of social interaction have been significant issues for everyone, but their impacts on young people, in particular, must be examined and overcome.
Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) reports that “children may be feeling new worries about bringing germs home, or they may be facing stress about the changes in school routines and classmates.” These fears and educational loss are compounded by personal losses, with the most blatant form of this being the death tolls they are witnessing not only on TV but in their own families and friend groups. While the virus has most directly impacted the elderly, the secondary effects on children cannot be overemphasized. Physical sickness is only one part of the equation; anxiety and fear are also rampant within all age groups. As CMHO suggests, “there is a lot of uncertainty around what the start of school may look like, not to mention worries about a possible second wave of the virus,” meaning that our kids are left worrying about concerns that we normally do not associate with the supposed innocence of childhood.
As we have witnessed during physical distancing and quarantine measures, staying inside for long periods of time is also a reality with which our children have had to come to terms. Normally, we may expect children to enjoy time outdoors; indeed, we often hear about how important this is for development and growth, as playtime outside has both physical and mental benefits. Being forced to stay in a single, indoor location can lead to loneliness, lack of motivation, and worse. According to The Hospital for Sick Children, “across six domains of mental health – depression, anxiety, irritability, attention span, hyperactivity, and obsessions/compulsions – 70.2 percent of school-aged children […] reported deterioration in at least one domain.” This means that the majority of our youth are suffering from significant difficulties that are at least partially caused by the pandemic and the shutdowns. This is unsurprising, as children who are kept indoors may have less access to physical exercise, nature, and the activities that make being young an exciting time of personal development. When those opportunities to learn and grow are limited or distorted, and when kids are exposed to media that constantly reflects the negative events occurring within society during this crisis, children have few options for escape from the stressful situations that have been imposed upon them.
These effects extend most profoundly to the social domain, where children and teens discover their identities and learn to be part of a wider community. Only by interacting with other people can we understand ourselves, and only by being part of something bigger than any individual can we fully understand and express our individuality. This means that we have to talk with and learn from each other to truly experience the wide range of human emotions and improve our abilities in a broad spectrum of activities. Without those social opportunities, young people are having a hard time adjusting. While many kids were increasingly going online anyway, the lack of in-person interactions cannot be fully replaced through a computer screen. According to CMHO, “tensions in relationships and domestic violence related to household confinement” are rising, and kids have few places to find refuge, with supportive relationships being potentially more difficult to create when school and other activities have been shut down or restricted. Social supports may be reduced, and young people may find it more difficult than ever to talk about their struggles.
Thankfully, there are ways to at least reduce these problems, if not alleviate them altogether. As schools open up, there are more personal supports, but even during shutdowns, online classes, Zoom activities, socially distanced meet-ups, and family interactions could all have a positive role in helping kids deal with COVID-19 stresses. E-counselling and other social supports have become more prominent, and funding for families who are struggling can make things easier for the entire household. Mental health and support for childhood development must be top priorities, and creating a more caring society that responds to these needs is of the utmost importance. While keeping in mind any COVID restrictions, exercise and nature walks are always helpful, and though some problems are not so easily solved, there are many simple ways that people can help children adapt to the challenges we are facing. Even just being open to speaking in an uplifting manner about the struggles they are dealing with can make a world of difference in the lives of our youth.
Overall, the pandemic has affected people of all ages, and though we may often think of the virus as something that targets the elderly, our children also deserve our consideration and assistance during this time. By supporting them through COVID-19 anxieties, helping them find safe activities where they express themselves and grow, and providing social outlets that will improve their mental health, we can get through the pandemic stronger than ever.