It's been a difficult year. As things return to "normal," it's important to remember that the emotional fallout of the pandemic hit especially hard for young people.
A year in the life of an adult can be much like the previous 12 months in terms of jobs, social activities and family situations. We can pretty much resume our routines after a gap. But for kids, a year can seem to encompass a lifetime, and the passage of time usually means a whole new chapter.
Think of the situational and developmental differences in the year between elementary and middle school, for instance. It is a time of social and emotional milestones. Likewise, each year of high school is packed with new knowledge and social skills to master.
The loss of normal activities during the pandemic was particularly hard on those in transition and preparatory years, grades 8 and 12. Many students spent them home alone on Zoom. They lost their social networks and freedom and missed rites of passage that both provide closure and frameworks to look toward the future. In the case of college-bound students, they may also have lost ground – in academics, sports and social skills - to new peers who had more in-person schooling.
There has been more depression and anxiety across the board. Kids already struggling with learning challenges were particularly vulnerable. Hour upon hour of screen time is not optimal for any student, and virtual learning was very rough on those with ADHD or conditions along the autism spectrum. Kids missed out on the best part of school: the social interaction and feedback that helps spur a love of learning. Losing sports programs also affected many people deeply.
School is a place for maturing on your own - apart from your parents. To interrupt that trajectory at any point has an impact. We tend to take young people’s “resilience” for granted. The kids, preteens and teenagers who soldiered through the school shutdowns and the disruption of face-to-face friendships and activities may have suffered both developmentally and emotionally.
What can parents do?
Be aware that your children might have been more affected by the pandemic than they let on. Realize and acknowledge what has happened. Have an honest conversation with them about their loss and making the best of the situation. This is necessary even for young children.
Kids are picking up a lot more than you may think. Some have an overwhelming feeling of loss of control, almost a subclinical type of PTSD – one day the world was fine and for the next year it wasn’t. This has led to social and academic withdrawal.
A lot of kids who were borderline introverts may be full-on introverts now. We’ve all been without the positive reinforcement of social interactions and for some that has left no outlet to dissipate anxiety. For others it has exacerbated underlying symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Be patient and keep expectations in check. Don’t necessarily expect a smooth transition back to school. I’ve seen great students who have dropped off the honor roll. The loss of social interaction and positive reinforcement has taken a toll on them. Recognize that it’s been difficult and give them credit for weathering it.
During graduation season, I encouraged parents to try to recreate – even in a limited way – the events that were missed: to buy the prom dress, take pictures, host a party and, for sure, to mark the end of 12 years of schooling with a special experience.
We all may be a little tentative as we venture back into social situations and packed calendars. Make the transition easier by getting outside as much as possible. Encourage physical activity and socializing.
Rejoin organized activities when possible. I saw first-hand the gaping hole that the loss of sports schedules created for students, families and even the community as a whole. Sports and other organized activities foster teamwork, camaraderie and exercise.
Lastly, consider counseling for kids who may need some extra help adjusting after a traumatic time for all of us.
Dr. Gautam Bhasin is a clinical psychologist, who specializes in neuropsychology and treats people of all ages. He is a New Jersey State Certified School Psychologist, and he can offer insight on how schools provide special education services to children of all ages. Dr. Bhasin also has expertise in evaluating and treating geriatric cognitive disorders (neurodegenerative disease and stroke), mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, ADHD, and learning disabilities in adults, adolescents, and children. Dr. Bhasin has offices in Teaneck (201-836-3000) and Westwood (201) 358-0400. He provides in-person and telemedicine appointments.