In what seemed like the course of a few days, our world turned upside down. Children were significantly affected by the pandemic and could no longer attend school or see friends in person. Many weren’t able to see family like grandparents. The isolation of the pandemic can take a toll on anyone’s mental health, but for children, it was especially hard. 

This is what millions of children have experienced in the last 18 months as the pandemic took hold of their world. Children have had to make sense of all these changes even though they don’t have all the life experiences or coping strategies for such dramatic events. And, let’s face it, as parents, we had trouble coping with this new, uncertain world ourselves.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on children? Are they all negative? Although the studies are ongoing, they are helping researchers better understand the pandemic’s effects on children. As we begin to resume some normalcy in many parts of the world, it’s helpful to look at these findings to understand what challenges children have faced and may encounter as they begin a “new normal.”

Evidence Points to an Increase in Mental Health Challenges 

In general, research points to the fact that children and adolescents have experienced increased mental health challenges during the pandemic. Studies from several locations, including China, Italy, and Spain, indicate higher levels of depression and anxiety among children, especially compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

While these general findings are informative, they fail to illustrate the complete picture of children’s experiences during the pandemic. To see that, we need to consider the mechanisms by which the pandemic influenced children’s everyday lives and routines. 

Understanding the Pandemic’s Effects on Children

In the world of child development, it’s often helpful to look at children’s experiences from an ecological perspective. That is, to try to understand how children’s development progresses in the context of their family life and society at large. Likewise, laws, demographic changes and health patterns impact their experiences as well. From this perspective, it’s easy to understand how a worldwide pandemic trickles down into children’s development through the different layers in which they are nested. 

From this ecological perspective and the above graphic, it’s easy to see that the environment in which children live can serve as both a shield and a conduit for positive or negative impacts. A child’s environment (especially family and support systems) can shield them from some effects of the pandemic, or the opposite can be true if the family dynamic is dysfunctional. Likewise, depending on a child’s particular situation, the environment may further exacerbate the negative potential of the pandemic. 

The Environment and Its Impact

The impact of the pandemic on children’s well-being is largely viewed through the changes in their environment.

At first glance, it seemed as though the pandemic might have a limited impact on children. In the early days of the virus, we learned that children were at lower risk of being seriously ill from it. Just as many parents expressed a sigh of relief, the spread of the virus took hold, and social distancing measures began across the world. This meant that schools and businesses closed, leaving parents at home with their children trying to re-create a school environment as best they could.

Thus, while the virus itself may not have impacted children directly in a large-scale way, the changes to children’s environments were big. The limited research we have so far illustrates this point.

Key Factor: Family Stress and Stability 

For example, one study found that the strongest predictor of children’s emotional reactions during the pandemic was the degree of family stress and stability. As one might expect, children who experienced a greater degree of family stress and instability reported more trouble sleeping and problems concentrating. Similarly, children who had a family member with COVID experienced higher anxiety levels than those who did not.

Effects of familial stress and instability:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Problems concentrating
  • Higher levels of anxiety

Key Factor: School Closures

Not surprisingly, one of the most significant changes to children’s environment during the pandemic was the closure of schools. This change, too, was related to children’s emotional well-being. Several studies and surveys have shown that children experienced higher rates of loneliness and missing friends during school closures. Much of the research also points to higher rates of depression and anxiety, particularly among adolescents. Presumably, at least some mental health challenges were related to the lack of social interaction during school closures. 

Effects of school closures and a lack of social interaction:

  • More loneliness
  • Higher rate of depression 
  • Higher rate of anxiety

Key Factor: Socio-Economic Status

As with many pandemic-related impacts, we know that another factor of children’s environment played a huge role in the story—their socio-economic status. Children from lower-income families tended to fare worse during the pandemic for almost every factor considered—emotional well-being, academic progress, and physical health. Thus, we see how the environment in which children find themselves plays a large role in determining the pandemic-related impacts on their development.

The Environment as a Buffer to the Pandemic

While the environment in which children are surrounded saw dramatic changes due to the pandemic, this same environment also served as a buffer to some of its impacts. Family life, in particular, served as a protective factor in many cases. Children who experienced family instability did report some challenges in regards to sleep and concentration. However, children (at least in one study) overall did not report higher levels of feeling sad, upset, or unsafe. Researchers believe these findings support the idea that family support and emotional attentiveness buffered many of the effects of the pandemic for kids.

Another way children’s environment served as a buffer to pandemic impact was through positive home school experiences. The same study showed that children who experienced a positive homeschool situation during the pandemic fared better emotionally and psychologically than children who did not have such a positive experience. We might assume that these children were already better adjusted before the pandemic. However, further analysis showed that the influence of a positive homeschool experience was evident after considering children’s prior emotional adjustment. This points to the idea that a positive homeschool experience served children well in terms of their mental health.

Buffers to adverse pandemic effects:

  • Supportive family
  • Emotional attentiveness
  • Positive homeschool experience

Keys to Coping

As life returns to pre-pandemic mode, many parts of the world and children re-emerge into social interactions, it’s wise to consider their adjustment. Although we have seen that mental health impacts of the pandemic varied widely, depending on children’s environment, it’s likely that all children may face some challenges. Children’s adaptation to re-entering the social world will most likely correspond to the ecological model described above. The support they receive from their environment (i.e., family and school), will largely impact their re-entry journey. Added support for mental health and academic concerns will be needed for many children.

Although the research is unclear on the long-term effects of the pandemic, what seems clear is that the more support families and schools can provide for children, the better they will adjust. Here are just a few ideas to consider as children re-emerge into the world:

  • Provide children advance notice of changes. Before venturing out into the social world, discuss changes in social distancing rules, masking regulations, etc. Provide children with clear guidance on what interactions your family feels comfortable with (and which you don’t).
  • Answer questions. Children may have a lot of questions regarding the status of the pandemic. Provide the best answers you can (no one can know everything!) and help them feel safe in this new phase of re-entry.
  • Slow down. It might take children some time to re-adjust to social situations again. Take things slowly at first and help them adjust to social interactions. The first few outings may feel awkward as they re-learn how to play with friends, share with others and carry on conversations with individuals they may not have seen in many months.
  • Lower your expectations. Don’t expect children to re-adjust to social and school interactions immediately. Go into new situations expecting that there might be difficulties or challenges. 
  • Monitor your own stress. Children are keenly aware of parents’ stress or changes in their behavior. Keep tabs on your feelings and how they might influence your children’s feelings. If you feel uncomfortable in a particular situation, it’s likely your children will too. Choose outings that you feel confident about, and this will help your children too.

There is a lot we still do not know about the effects of the pandemic on children. As with any major life event, however, the supportive guidance of parents and schools can help children be resilient in the face of challenges.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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