Lost Years

For kids and teens, it’s been hard to go back to the conventional way of doing things.

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Children have been through an awful lot in the past two years: online classes; social isolation; few in-person social outlets and interactions; constant stress from family finances, work and school changes; plenty of negative news media coverage; ever-shifting COVID-19 protocols; and fear of the virus itself.

These factors can all contribute to a host of issues for children, including stunted social skills, developmental delays, learning issues, anxiety and depression.

“It’s a little too early to understand long-term impacts of the past two years on youth,” said Monique Winnett, clinical psychologist with St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center. “There will likely be some long-term impacts. There have been a lot of changes for kids.”

The acute issues presenting at her practice relate to socialization and relating to others in a meaningful way.

Young children struggle to understand sharing, taking turns and resolving minor conflict because those serendipitous interactions they would experience at school do not happen during Zoom and Facetime “playdates” arranged with their pre-COVID-19 friends, Winnett said.

Children have missed life lessons such as how to make friends with someone new, settle small squabbles with children they do not know or develop understanding with someone from a different background. Oftentimes, these situations occur on the playground, while waiting in line or during other incidental, unplanned times during a school day.

While the isolation may have felt like a godsend to more introverted children, isolation prevents them from becoming as social as they could be.

“The more that parents can carve the time out to engage with kids that’s not centered around the screen such as family game time or sports and clubs, you’ll help them fill up time that gives them a sense of connection,” Winnett said.

For older children who are home by themselves more, the lack of structure in their school day followed by the shock of returning to in-person classes has been challenging.

In addition to life lessons, children’s academic lessons are less than ideal for most children. As children exhibit different learning style—some are more hands-on, others prefer the explanation inherent to a lecture, still more like reading over doing or hearing—virtual learning has hamstrung teachers to instruct in fewer styles than they could in the classroom.

“The pandemic has forced educators to use technology at their disposal to use to help educate their children,” Winnett said.

She encourages parents to help make up for any academic gaps by engaging their children in learning activities at home.

“You can ask teachers about games or activities that are beneficial and age-appropriate and grade-appropriate,” Winnett said. “They can guide you towards programs that are beneficial. A lot of times, ‘educational’ games are not as active as you would like.

That’s where it takes parental supervision to see how meaningful it is. It can help you discern that healthy screen time versus what is more passive or harmful screen time.”

Catching up

Nearly all children are expected to have some degree of lag in their schooling, so an amount of remedial work is normal.

Parents can use the summer to help make up for lost time.

Bringing home more library books, engaging in educational outings such as to places like museums, open houses and cultural points of interest and using educational media such as games, documentaries and puzzles can help children feel better prepared for the next school year.

To help children mitigate social isolation, Anne Reagan, pediatric psychologist and assistant professor with Golisano Children’s Hospital department of pediatrics, encourages parents to find family members and friends with whom they are comfortable for socialization.

“Now that kids are back in school, they have more access to friends,” she added. “With home testing being more available, you can take a home test before kids come over. Continue to find some safe, healthy socialization. It can be outside with sledding or skating. Kids can get some typical, normal experiences.”

Keeping communication open can help children feel like they have input and that they can do something to feel more in control.

Using up-to-date information about what is going on and suggesting ways they can stay safe, such as washing their hands and taking care of their bodies, will help anxious children feel better about becoming more social.

“Don’t say they will never get sick but assure them you will take care of them,” Reagan said. “Normalize living with this disease is the next step. Talk about ‘Should we continue to use hand sanitizer, eat fruits and vegetables or take vitamins?’ Focus on those types of things. It’s not a false sense of control, but these are all things to help your body get strong. Continue to sit at the table with kids and have these conversations. They have a way to express their concerns.”