As kids reach the end of a very tumultuous school year, most without even getting a chance to say goodbye to their friends, parents and educators alike are reasonably concerned about the lasting impacts of quarantine and distance learning on their children. This is the COVID generation—and the experts are weighing in on what their path forward may look like.
Last month, the Kansas City Public Library kicked off a series of pandemic-related programming with a virtual discussion on the impacts of this unique time in history on the kids who are living through it. The biggest takeaway? Self-care and nurturing the parent-child relationship are more important than any worksheet packet or Zoom call.
“This caught us all off guard,” said Laura Cline, school counselor of nearly 25 years. She explained that the effects of the quarantine on children depend largely on their home life. As a school counselor, Cline meets with hundreds of kids and parents each year. Some have stable and supportive homes, but others need school as a safe space because of potentially neglectful or abusive situations at home.
The impacts of social distancing and quarantine on children are already starting to show up in some surprising ways. Dr. Robert Grant, licenced professional counselor and owner of the Robert Jason Grant AutoPlay Therapy Clinic, explained that kids’ difficult feelings can manifest in out of the ordinary or regressive behaviors like tantrums or thumb-sucking.
The signs of the pandemic are unavoidable—face masks, cashiers behind plexiglass, and empty restaurants. Kids are seeing things that are very different from what they’re used to, and asking questions is what kids do best, so these topics will inevitably come up. Grant says that the way their caregivers explain and react to these differences can have a big impact on a child’s emotional response. He recommends delivering explanations calmly and matter-of-factly.
Cline explains that asking questions is how kids process what’s going on around them. Of course, parents don’t always have all the answers. She suggests responding to difficult or unanswerable questions with, “I don’t know, but when I find out I’ll let you know.” This shows the child that they are heard, and that it’s ok for there to be some uncertainty right now.
She suggested identifying a “transitional object,” something comforting that reminds the child of a caregiver. A special plush toy, an old t-shirt, whatever a kid can hold onto during moments of anxiety or uncertainty can empower them to self-soothe while also providing a comforting reminder of the constants that remain during this stressful time, the child’s family and support system.
Now that some states have started the reopening process and school systems are working on figuring out what the next academic year will look like, parents are eager to know how to prepare and what to expect. “It’s going to look different when we get back…I don’t think we’re going to have full classrooms,” cautions Dr. Grant.
Many parents are reasonably concerned about their kids falling behind academically because of the difficulties of distance learning and juggling jobs with school work. Grant stresses that health and wellness should always come before school. Parents in particular should be practicing good self-care right now and modelling those behaviors for their children.
Putting too much pressure on themselves to get everything done can be counterproductive and create more stress than necessary. “My advice to any parent would be to take care of yourself, and then do whatever you can to take care of your kid…If you didn’t get the worksheet done today, that’s ok. Academic skills can be caught up.”
As far as the mental health effects of the pandemic on this generation of kids, Grant says that a lot of therapists are talking about how we may see the ripple effects of this event far into the future. He predicts that the cultural and social impacts could be much like those of 9/11 for the millennial generation.
Both counselors offer some tips on how to help kids process what’s going on. Especially for younger children, Grant recommends letting them “play out” their feelings. Kids are much more likely to open up about their feelings when playing alongside a caregiver or counselor. Even if they don’t totally express themselves during playtime, they will at least feel more comfortable and less guarded, which will help them process their emotions more effectively.
Finally, Laura Cline reminds us that school counselors are still accessible and able to help families during the quarantine. She urges families who are in need of support or guidance with their child’s mental health or wellness to reach out to their school’s counselor and set up an appointment via Zoom or phone.