What will be the effect of Stress from the Pandemic on Children?

There’s no doubt about it. The pandemic, stretching into five months as I write this, is having an effect on adults. In his novel, “The Plague,” Albert Camus wrote about people in a fictional town shuffling numbly through life as the epidemic reached a year. We haven’t quite reached that point in America, but as the Covid-19 pandemic shows no signs of abating, tensions and anxieties for many people are increasing.

That is certainly true of parents – what with moms and dads trying to juggle children and child care, work and schooling. A recent American Psychological Association (APA) survey found that nearly of parents with children under the age of 18 say their stress levels are high. As times moves on, a greater proportion of Americans say that the economy and work is a significant source of stress for them.  

If stress is becoming a significant factor for adults and parents, what about stress in children?

"Children are keen observers and often notice and react to stress or anxiety in their parents, caregivers, peers and community,” commented Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., APA's chief executive officer. “Parents should prioritize their self-care and try their best to model healthy ways of coping with stress and anxiety."

Since children have not been going to school for months, and many have had to try to cope with online learning, all while being physically isolated from peers, stress and anxiety for children may be on-going as well.

Some experts see the stress children may be experiencing as a kind of trauma that could have long-term consequences.

For instance, Natalie Slopen, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that extensive research shows excessive or prolonged exposure to stress in childhood and adolescence is harmful to healthy childhood development.  "And this has implications for lifelong learning, behavior and health," Slopen added.

Slopen said that part of the link between childhood stresses and health problems is direct. That is, stress hormones can lead to inflammation, which raises the risk of developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease.

Stress also causes problems indirectly. Children who experience high stress levels are at increased risk for being overweight, having disrupted sleep or starting to smoke – all of which can lead to other health problems.

Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, is also concerned about the effects of long-term stress on children. One of the biggest predictors of how a child will do after a crisis, Gurwitch said, is how well the parents cope with their stress. If they appear overly distressed, without effective coping, there's a greater chance their children will have problems.

Children who suffer adversity also are less likely to pursue education as far as people who did not, Slopen said. Slopen pointed out that "…we know that level of education is strongly correlated with income in adulthood, and that income is a really strong predictor of later risk for cardiovascular disease as well."

"The mental health ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic are immense and growing," APA’s Evans warned. "We need to prepare for the long-term implications of the collective trauma facing the population. On an individual level, this means looking out for one another, staying connected, keeping active and seeking help when necessary."

Whether their children are in kindergarten or college, parents need to reach out and talk about what is happening with COVID-19, including asking about their feelings. If their children express feelings – no matter what those feelings are – it’s up to parents to validate those feelings.

During a pandemic children are facing stressors without access to the stabilizing routines and activities – such as school, sports and time with friends – that normally support their development. Thus, parents can help their children cope by establishing new routines and sticking to therm.

But, more than anything, parents can protect their children from stressful life events by providing a warm and supportive environment.

To read the full articles that provided resources for this piece, please see here and here.

Written by James Windell, MA

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