It might seem as though children who lived through the pandemic had it easier than adults or adolescents. Sure, they probably didn’t love wearing masks, but it couldn’t have been that bad. What kid doesn’t love getting a long break from school or rushing around town to different activities and errands? And anyway, will they even remember it?
The truth is, children who lived through the pandemic faced extraordinary stress, unlike anything today’s adults experienced in their own childhood. Having school at home on a screen or in a building with masks and plexiglass dividers between their peers, cancelled birthday parties and holidays, visiting grandparents through windows, and so much more made the last several years incredibly challenging for young children.
As we crawl out of the pandemic and return to many of our previous activities, children may still be experiencing a wide range of mental health challenges due to the struggles of the last several years. In this post, we’ll look at the impact of the pandemic on children ages 0 to 15. (To learn more about adolescents, click here. And for the impact on adults, click here.)
Before we dive into the specific mental health challenges kids may be facing, let’s explore why the pandemic affected their mental health in the first place.
The pandemic was a form of trauma for everyone. While some children, such as those living in unsafe environments or those who rely on special education, fared much worse during the pandemic, it affected all children in some capacity.
And what do we know about trauma in children? Thanks to large-scale research done over decades, we know that trauma can impact a child across the lifespan. We also know that trauma can surface even years after the traumatic event.
The good thing is that kids are naturally resilient. But what’s tricky is that their resilience could prevent us from seeing what may be really happening underneath the surface. It’s important to remember that just because some kids may appear to be fine, they still experienced a traumatic event.
When the virus hit and everything, including schools, began to shut down, children were immediately cut off from their social connections. They left their classrooms without saying goodbye to friends and teachers. They missed play dates and birthday parties, and even casual encounters with other children and adults.
This is important because children learn through socialization. In fact, the human brain is wired to connect with others. The “social brain” picks up on cues from others – everything from mimicking behavior to the contagious effect of emotions.
It is through interactions with other children that kids learn empathy and collaboration, problem solving and conflict management. It is through interactions with adults other than their primary caregivers that they learn respect, self-awareness and how to engage in different settings.
During this time, it wasn’t just that children didn’t have friends to play with. It was that they were robbed of these critical opportunities to socialize.
Looking back on the early days of the pandemic, you may remember a feeling of overwhelm or uncertainty. And while some children may have been blissfully unaware (or even enjoying the change of pace), some also shared those feelings. As adults, we struggled to make sense of what was happening and navigate the ever-changing landscape. And that was with all the existing knowledge we had about medicine, viruses and vaccines, and the ability to understand and interpret what the experts were saying. But children were also unsure of what was going on – and they didn’t have any of that knowledge. It’s like navigating a public transit system in a foreign country. Those who speak the language and have experience with public transit will probably do better than those who’ve never ridden and can’t read the signs.
What we know about children is that when faced with uncertainty or partial information, their brains fill in the gaps. This can look like jumping to a conclusion or making seemingly confusing connections. Some children verbalized their questions and concerns, and others kept them to themselves, often filling in the missing pieces with the limited information they overheard or had previous experiences with.
So even if children seemed okay, inside they may have had a sense of panic trying to navigate it all. And while that panic may have subsided with time, stress and trauma can live in the body for an extended period.
So how are children doing with their overall mental health in 2023?
The research on this topic is of course new and evolving. But newer studies show certain consistencies.
Our brains have a “use it or lose it” feature called pruning. It’s like the clearing out of unused merchandise at the warehouse. This is the brain’s way to stay effective and efficient, by getting rid of what we don’t need. Synaptic pruning happens very rapidly between the ages of 2 and 10 – during this window of time, about 50 percent of extra synapses are eliminated.
What synapses in the brain are paired with social skills? Things like:
And what happens when children spend a year or more with only a small group of people? They may miss out on some of these social development milestones. This is not to say that the brain has wiped these neural connections, but those that haven’t been used as much will need additional practice to come back online.
After the pandemic, many children are struggling with social skills. This can look like:
Teachers and caregivers are reporting increased social anxiety and peer conflict. While there are many things that can affect this, the one thing that is different now than in years past is the absence of social practice for that extended period.
Anxiety and depression are often linked together and can go hand-in-hand. But let’s break each of them down.
Anxiety is a clinical term that describes worry or anticipation that is difficult to control and lasts for an extended period of time. Anxiety might look like heightened nerves in social situations, an increase in caution, or persistent worry over things that might happen.
Depression is a medical condition that can negatively affect how a person feels, thinks and acts. It can cause feelings of sadness or lack of interest.
Anxiety often shows up as worry or fear, and depression often shows up as sadness or loss of energy. But these two can often pair up and a person may feel a combination of these symptoms.
Though anxiety and depression are both clinical terms with a diagnosis, a person doesn’t need to be diagnosed to have the symptoms – though a diagnosis with support from a qualified professional is recommended.
Research on anxiety and depression in youth following the pandemic is still ongoing, but early studies show an increase in anxious and depressive symptoms across all ages.
Let’s take a quick look at the brain.
Deep inside the brain is a small, almond-shaped region called the amygdala. It is the emotional center of the brain and is responsible for our emotional responses. It is also known as the “fight or flight” system. This means that when our brain experiences a threat, the amygdala is the first to be alerted and respond – determining if the appropriate response is fight, flight or freeze. In this mode, the message of danger doesn’t take the time to travel to the logical, thinking parts of the brain, it simply acts quickly. This is great news when we are faced with a serious threat. Where this becomes problematic is when the threat is not a real threat.
For several years, we have been faced with very real threats. The virus itself was a deadly threat that caused real suffering and even death. This meant that public spaces and interacting with others were also very real threats. Once the imminent danger of the virus subsided, what was left was a state of fear for many people, including children.
The amygdala isn’t always the best judge of whether something is a real threat. And it’s easy to see why it could be thrown off following the pandemic – it’s hard for the brain to grasp why something that was a threat for so long suddenly isn’t a threat anymore.
Many children are walking around with an amygdala on high alert for danger. Their brains are constantly scanning the environment for signs that there is a threat in the environment. A brain in this state is easily triggered into action. Something as small as a look or an accidental bump can send the brain into alarm mode, and the behavior that follows may seem out of proportion to the action.
Understanding this brain science helps explain some of the behaviors that teachers and caregivers are reporting in children of all ages. Aggressive, disruptive and even violent behavior may be a carryover from the pandemic days, when interacting with other people was a real threat. It may take some time for these young brains to readjust to the new terms.
Some educators and caregivers are reporting a decrease in tolerance for handling the small things – small stressors, minor requests or inconveniences. While children before the pandemic were able to follow simple instructions, some children today seem to interpret requests from their teacher or caregiver as demands and can respond with frustration or annoyance.
What might be causing this? Why the shift?
Like everything in life, managing stressors is a learned skill. In order to run a marathon, you must first be able to run a mile. The same is true for stress. In order to manage the stressors that are inevitable in childhood, you must first develop a tolerance for it. This includes managing what may seem to adults as tiny, insignificant issues. For several years, the pandemic shrunk our social circles and limited our exposure to interactions with other people (the most frequent cause of stress!). Children removed from classrooms and playdates likely didn’t have those tiny experiences like learning to share, waiting for a turn, or running out of time to finish something. Those mini stressors help children learn to navigate the larger stressors that come with age.
Children who were fortunate enough to spend the pandemic in a safe and secure home environment likely had their needs met, probably more immediately than they do at school. When they are now competing for attention with a class full of students, their brain will have to call upon previous experiences navigating small stressors and inconveniences. And for some children, this just may be a little rusty.
This topic can certainly feel overwhelming. But don’t despair! While it is true that the pandemic had an effect on mental health for most children (most people, for that matter), it doesn’t mean that they’re doomed to a life of mental health challenges. Remember, young children are incredibly resilient.
Here are a few things to consider in supporting children’s mental health.
The brain develops through two ways: time and experience.
Time refers to brain development as a child ages. There are times called sensitive periods for certain types of development, such as language development. This doesn’t mean that language cannot develop later; it simply means that the development is easiest during the timeframe when the brain is most sensitive to such growth.
Things like language, walking, and even tying a shoelace are skills a child develops through time.
Experience refers to development because of an individual or repeated experience in the child’s environment. Experience is a powerful shaper of brain development. For example, a child learns to regulate their emotions when they have repeated experiences with an adult who responds when they cry and offers support to help them return to calm. These experiences shape the brain and help it develop the skills of regulation. Some experiences only need to happen once, like touching a hot stove. Others – in fact, most – must be repeated to create the same level of learning. For example, repeated positive interactions with dogs can teach a child that dogs are friendly.
When thinking about social skills that took a hit during the pandemic, it is helpful to think of these two types of brain development. What part of social skills are due to time, and what part are due to experience?
Some social skills are time-dependent, such as language. And many others are experience-dependent, such as problem solving, interpreting facial expressions, empathy and self-regulation skills.
You can probably guess where this is headed. A child who is lacking in experience-dependent skills needs the opportunity for repeated experiences in those skills.
This is where practice and modeling come in. When we model certain skills and behaviors, we set an example for children to follow.
Practicing and modeling can look and sound like:
In the classroom:
In the home:
An extended period of isolation took away opportunities for children to practice perspective taking and empathy. This is likely a contributing factor to some of the behavior challenges children are exhibiting as they return to school and community. Having empathy for others creates a more compassionate environment, while a lack of empathy can create conflict.
Empathy is the act of sharing in another person’s feelings and understanding their perspective. Empathy can be built by noticing and acknowledging moments of empathy . This can be done through real-world or fictional situations, such as in books and TV.
For more on how to re-build empathy after covid, check out this article.
We don’t expect caregivers to be able to solely navigate a child’s physical health journey. This is why we have checkups with a pediatrician and specialists for vision or broken bones. The same should be true for mental health. When a child needs extra support because they’re struggling with anxiety, depression or just having a hard time, there are professionals we can – and should – consult. While finding mental health care or getting assessments can be taxing depending on a variety of circumstances, it can also be profoundly lifechanging and important. For more on how to find a therapist or get a child tested, consider these resources.
Mental Health Resources
The most important thing we can do is to continue to show up for children and provide a safe landing as they make sense of the experiences of the past few years. An event as seismic as the pandemic will stick with our culture for decades to come, and today’s children will be more resilient for having navigated it, if we continue to provide the support they need to bounce back and thrive.