Living in a COVID-19 world is scary for everyone — but can be even more traumatic and life-altering for young children and teens growing up in the age of a pandemic.
Besides worrying about staying safe 24/7, they are also facing major challenges ranging from social isolation and boredom to the loss of current events and despair over having less to look forward to, according to Dr. Nicole Robinson, a Staten Island pediatric neuropsychologist with a practice in Bloomfield.
“Childhood is only a season and many kids and teens are more aware of that than they needed to be before,” Dr. Robinson explained. She said the number of patient referrals rose significantly in the spring of 2020 due to children and teens suffering from COVID-induced depression, anxiety, and social isolation.
“For older kids, like teens and young adults, so much of their life is meant to be lived in social circles outside the family, so kids in those age groups are struggling with the limits of socialization in a bigger way,” Dr. Robinson explained. “We are seeing difficulties on the social and emotional side, as well as the academic side.”
Missing Out Because of Covid
Parents can help their children and teens through this difficult period by recognizing, identifying, and comforting their fears — but never trivializing their concerns, according to Dr. Robinson. While their frustrations may seem small — such as missing a rite of passage or milestone — they are significant problems in their worlds, she noted. This includes teenage girls who can no longer buy a dress for their Sweet 16 party or senior prom, athletes whose seasons have been canceled, and candidates for graduation from pre-K to college who won’t wear a cap and gown to live ceremonies.
“So much of their experience being time sensitive, there is only one senior prom, one graduation, one freshman year of college,” Dr. Robinson explained. “Missing out on these events that they have been waiting for their whole lives and watched other siblings or friends go through is a sense of loss,” she continued.
But, parents should allow children and teens to “mourn” these losses.
“They are not wrong about the calendar being blank, and what may seem like a small concern may be significant for them,” Dr. Robinson said.
Susan Lunny Keag, a Randall Manor mother of three said her kids have been primarily impacted by the social isolation during COVID. “All of their daily activities were essentially cancelled — from sports to extracurricular programs,” Mrs. Lunny Keag explained.
Her son, Sean, a senior at Monsignor Farrell High School, had a shortened soccer season in the fall of 2020 and he “relished each practice and game,” his mom said. But, at the same time, his senior year was cut short.
“Sean has missed so many senior events that he will never get to experience, so that’s upsetting,” she said.
Meanwhile, when the CYO season was canceled for her daughter, Claire, a 6th grader at Blessed Sacrament, she was “devastated,” Mrs. Lunny Keag said. “The girls on her basketball team and her coaches are like her second family, so that took a tremendous toll on her,” she explained. “Sports help kids decompress and is another means of socializing outside of school, so taking that away is definitely detrimental to them.”.
Her daughter, Bridget, meanwhile, a musician and actress, was at a loss when most of her shows and performances were cancelled. “She missed being on the stage and performing in person with her friends,” she said of her daughter, a sophomore at St. Joseph Hill Academy. “She was grateful to do an online holiday production in December with the Monsignor Farrell Players, which gave her something to look forward to,” the mom of three said.
Aside from their sports and extracurricular activities on pause, Mrs. Lunny Keag said missing a milestone celebration was another impact on her family. “Bridget wasn’t able to have the Sweet 16 party she had imagined because of restaurants and catering halls being closed,” she explained.
Parents dealing with similar issues with their children and teens should offer “radical empathy” and try to see the issue from their childrens’ perspective to soothe their upset feelings, Dr. Robinson suggests. This helps parents bond with their children and teens — yet still maintain boundaries for rules, parental supervision, and discipline, she said.
“It’s hard for parents who are trying to keep the ship afloat if they feel they are drowning themselves,” Dr. Robinson said. That task is even more challenging for parents who have multiple kids. “It can become one vast, ongoing stressed activity within the same four walls and it’s harder to compartmentalize work and family life than ever before,” she added.
Remote Learning Challenges
Difficulties with remote learning are also a leading concern for the Island’s youth, Staten Island parents and Dr. Robinson said. “It’s difficult for some kids to process all of the academic information without the hands-on piece of learning,” Dr. Robinson explained.
Mrs. Lunny Keag said her kids dislike the remote learning model because it is not an ideal setting — so they find it an additional challenge of managing life in a COVID age. “While each of their schools has had a hybrid model, the days that they’re home are hard,” their mom said. “They miss their friends and teachers when they are home,” she added. “You can’t get that human connection via a Zoom call or Google Meet — it’s just not the same.”
Donna Rettle, education director at Castleton Hill Moravian Preschool, referred to the children and adolescents growing up in a pandemic environment as “pioneers” given all the challenges they face. “The very things that we know help children to thrive have been altered: consistency, community and wide-open spaces,” which she said can “wreak havoc” on very young childrens’ sense of security.
This vulnerability is changing the way they have to grow up and adapt to life in a COVID world, she said.
“Our school age children and adolescents are trying to process feelings of sadness and loss, at the same time as they are trying to take in academics taught in an unfamiliar way without the social environment they thrive in. Primary age through adolescent students are conforming to current school schedules and sporadic socialization,” Ms. Rettle explained. “They are gaining skills in uneven and non-standard virtual and physical learning environments.”
Covid Challenges for Kids with Special Needs
Managing life in a COVID world is even more challenging for a child with learning disabilities, according to Staten Island parent Francesca D’Ambrosio.
“Educationally, remote learning with a child with ADHD has been hard,” she admits. “He is not learning and is not at all interested like he is when he is in school.”
Ms. D’Ambrosio worries that her son — and lots of other children — are falling behind. As an alternative solution, she implements more hands-on activities with him, such as multiplication flash cards, educational apps and films. Besides going to therapy and having an individualized education program (IEP), her son manages his struggles by swimming at the YMCA and doing karate twice a week. She also said spending quality time with the family is a key strategy to minimizing the challenges and helping her son adjust during a difficult time.
How to Handle Covid-Related Struggles in Kids
Dr. Robinson, meanwhile, said advice differs for parents with children of different ages.
Younger children routinely spend more time with their families than teenagers, she noted. “So much of their life is lived within the context of family anyway,” she explained. Some of what younger kids miss is being around other kids at school or on the playground, while others miss the mundane getting ready for school and structured part of their daily routine.
Parents of teenagers might be on polar opposites of an argument, but having a discussion and making a compromise over exactly what a teen wants to do with their friends and what the parents feel comfortable with is necessary, according to Dr. Robinson.
“When kids don’t see eye to eye with us and what is necessary for safety, we have to say ‘here’s what I’m comfortable with and we can discuss the options and meet in the middle’ — even if they are not thrilled about the outcome,” Dr. Robinson explained.
For instance, she suggests discussing and modifying intended plans, such as the type of activity, the timeline, the venue, and the number of friends involved. “When we can explain what our concerns are I think it’s easier for kids to see our side than if we just draw a hard line without explanation,” she said. “When we can identify the root of their wish and what’s at the core of it, we can try to provide some version of what they were hoping for.”
Finding Ways to Staying Positive During Covid
Overall, children and teens learn by example, she said, so parents should exhibit positive actions as they temporarily modify their lifestyles and promote sanity for their families during the pandemic. “It feels hard when there is so much going on and you’re being pulled in so many directions and you feel exhausted and drained after a whole year going through this,” Dr. Robinson said.
Ms. D’Ambrosio reminds fellow parents they shouldn’t feel like they are alone. “We will get through this and our children will be OK,” she said. “As long as our children are loved and healthy that is the most important thing.”
Kids are resilient, according to Mrs. Lunny Keag, who said her kids have found other outlets to occupy their extra time — which is good advice for other families. For instance, her daughter Bridget recently joined the track team to get outside and be involved with other students and taught herself to play the guitar and write her own songs.
Despite the obstacles from COVID, Mrs. Lunny Keag said she is thankful for her family’s health and well being — especially her children and 83-year-old mother-in-law. “We just miss the normalcy of our day-to-day activities,” she said.
Others, like Adriana Cordaro Giambanco of Bulls Head, agreed. The transition from social to digital lives is anything but smooth and enjoyable for her family.
She said her three sons — the oldest age 9 and twin 6 year-olds — went from playing outside and hanging out with their friends to being isolated from their peers. “Pre-COVID we had a busy life – sports, dance, art, and CCD classes,” she explained. They were social, read paper books and played board games — and only received iPad time as a treat when homework was done early or on the weekends, their mom recalled.
“COVID hit and you have this remote world that I personally hate,” Mrs. Giambanco explained. “My children who were once social and fun loving kids are now Zooming through every activity they can possibly have.” From March to June the boys were on the computers and iPads hours per day for school, gym class, art class, and music class, Mrs. Giambanco recalled.
She said they continue to use Messenger kids to talk to friends and socialize and play games online. “You feel bad taking away screen time now because it’s the only means of communicating with any of their friends at all,” she said “It was insanely difficult to adjust to and it still is now.”
Adapting to a Covid World
Since they attended a blended class schedule, their school closes when necessary under a two-case rule, which is frustrating for Mrs. Giambanco’s sons. “It’s not fair to them,” she said. “My heart breaks because they get excited and boom — closed!”
She said other parents facing similar struggles due to the impacts of the COVID crisis could benefit from being creative with the extra family time together — such as baking, making crafts, having family game and movie nights, camping indoors, ceramics, and painting.
“You think of it, I did it, but no matter what they were still missing socializing,” she said. When COVID cases lightened up in the summer of 2020, her boys were able to attend camp and their mom “saw my kids come back to who they were.”
But that was seasonal and short-lived.
“Yes, COVID is dangerous and an evil disease, but it’s also destroying childhood as we know it,” Ms. Giambanco said.
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