Kids Need Community
Melinda Macht-Greenberg, PhD
For the past few months, I have had the opportunity to work in person with over 2000 children and adolescents. There is one observation that stands out in terms of how kids are doing amid the pandemic: Kids Need Community.
A significant number of kids are suffering from a lack of community contact and social interaction over a prolonged period. The result is akin to a trauma reaction intermixed with low levels of anxiety and depression.
My observations from the summer, pertaining to pandemic reactions, cluster around key areas including social isolation, increased stress and anxiety, and low-level depression and irritability. I have coined the term Pandemic Reactive Syndrome (PRS) to reflect the challenges seen in numerous children and adolescents who are struggling.
The decreased use of skills in interaction and engagement, collaboration, following directions, and goal-directed behavior were notable across youngsters of all ages. This is not surprising as many students learn these skills in school. With limited in-person education for months at a time, these skills did not develop effectively. The result was that many children struggled to get along with others and actively engage in tasks from initiation to completion.
A number of children and adolescents exhibited features of trauma, anxiety, and depression. They would panic or become highly reactive over minor events. Some appeared sad or melancholy even during preferred play activities and others were anxiously reactive to unforeseen changes or routines. Although these observations occurred in years past, the increased incidence was notable and troubling.
As we seek to help developing children and adolescents through these difficult times, it is important to watch for signs of increased stress or sadness and to seek medical or psychological consultation as appropriate.
For many, returning to safe, nurturing school environments will provide the time and space for them to learn these social skills. For others, returning to school becomes an anxiety-producing, traumatic experience as they wonder if schools will close suddenly as in the past or if they will test positive for Covid and need to miss time in school or with their friends.
As adults, it is essential that we provide balance during these challenging times. Balance of worry with joy, safe social engagement, and time away from screens, as we model for children how to learn to live and take part in a community. We can empower children and adolescents on what they can do to limit their exposure to Covid while also engaging with others. We can provide anchors of normalcy which are grounding for youngsters, as well as routines and schedules that increase feelings of predictability and a sense of control. And, we can teach young people about flexible problem-solving so that they can feel capable of dealing with challenging situations.
As we begin our third academic year affected by Covid, we can show youngsters to join with others in their community as they learn and grow together. By becoming effective members of their community, including giving back to others and helping those in need, forming friendships, and being collaborative learning partners in school, we will give kids the tools they need to persevere in tough times while connecting with others. There is strength in numbers and together, we will move forward to brighter days.