NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro and education correspondent Cory Turner talk with child psychologist Abigail Gewirtz about the impact of the pandemic on kid’s mental health and development.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abigail, let’s start with the research. What can you tell us about the studies that are looking at kids and mental health in this crisis?
GEWIRTZ: Well, there are studies that are ongoing. Our world is really turned upside down. We are just beginning to think about how to understand what’s happening to children’s mental health and to children’s well-being in general. I can tell you as an editor of a journal who put out a call for papers on the psychological consequences of COVID-19, we received hundreds of submissions looking at children’s well-being, which I think is a good thing, and understanding the implications for schooling and other aspects of health.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what are they looking for, exactly?
GEWIRTZ: Well, we have a really large body of literature on trauma, and so we know in the big picture what trauma does to kids. This is a very unusual situation that – could we liken it to a earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, but on a global scale? Kind of. But of course, there’s huge variations. I mean, the beautiful voices that you heard earlier included a little girl whose dad is a doctor and who she’s worried about and a young man whose brother has an underlying health condition which requires a lot of attention and support. And then there are young children in the home as well who don’t have child care or school, and so all the routines go out of the window. So there are many, many things that we have to think about and try and understand and then ultimately figure out how to address.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cory, you’ve been speaking to dozens of teachers and school counselors for your reporting. What have they been telling you?
TURNER: Yeah. I spent a lot of time talking primarily with school counselors, and I was really surprised by what I heard because I intentionally sought out counselors from big city districts, suburban districts, remote rural districts, plus across the socioeconomic scale in terms of the kids and families they serve. And all of the counselors told me they were worried about the traumatic effect that this pandemic was having on students. They were, first and foremost, concerned, obviously, about the kids who were struggling before all of this happened – the kids who were already food-insecure, the kids who already had a pretty fragile support system at home. But it really surprised me that they said, look; we think this is a big deal for every child.
So actually, Abigail, if you don’t mind, I would love to hear more from you on – do you feel the same way? Do you see the potential here for this to be incredibly disruptive not only for kids who are already experiencing trauma before, but really for just about all of our kids?
GEWIRTZ: I do, Cory. I do. I was just talking with a colleague about an hour ago whose son is supposed to be graduating from high school this year. And he said, I feel so bad for my son. I mean, this is the year of all the landmarks of graduating high school – was the biggest event in 12 years of school, and he loses it. Our kids have lost a half a year of school, at the very least, all the learning that goes along with this and also – let’s not forget – all the peer interactions and all the work that kids do in terms of developing relationships and learning how to get along with others.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, then what are some of the potential long-term effects of this?
GEWIRTZ: Well, I think we can look at long-term effects both in terms of schools but also in terms of mental health. We know, as Corey pointed out earlier, that there are some kids who already were struggling for various reasons, and those kids are particularly vulnerable. We also want to be looking at the universe of kids and thinking about the impact on their school readiness when we think about very young children or school accomplishments when we think about older kids – potential holes in their education. We’re dealing with a much larger gap here, even with online school, if we recognize that many kids won’t benefit from online school the way they will from in person.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I’m also curious not only about sort of the educational lag but the social development because they are isolated from their peers. You know, I have an only child, and the isolation is profound.
GEWIRTZ: Absolutely. And play is what kids do, and play is not what you do when you’re faced with your smartphone (unintelligible) or your computer or your television. Play is real interactions with other people your age or around your age. And I agree with you, Lulu. It’s pretty devastating for kids’ psychosocial development. I want to be very clear that’s not to say I don’t think kids can catch up. They can, but I think we need to recognize the impact – the psychosocial impact that this pandemic is having on our kids.
TURNER: And Lulu, I just want to go back to something Abigail – you mentioned earlier, which is, you know, the isolating effect. Obviously, that’s going to be hard for any child. But if we think about, you know, teens, it’s part of their natural development – right? – that as they reach 13, 14, 15, their support system is supposed to shift away from their parents and towards their peer group. And that is precisely who they are isolated away from right now.
Another thing I heard from several of the high school counselors that I spoke with – they said grief. The teens we’re dealing with that we’re trying to reach on the phone, that if I’m lucky I can get on a Zoom call – they’re struggling with very real grief.
GEWIRTZ: I think that’s right. And I think a lot of what you’re pointing to depends on what’s going on in the family and the family environment. So a lot of kids get on pretty well with their family, and some kids don’t. And everybody gets on everyone else’s nerves when they’re all together. I mean, I don’t know about you. I mean…
TURNER: I have no idea what you’re talking about, Abigail (laughter).
GEWIRTZ: No idea, right? What you just described, Cory, is a real issue, you know, when you have people on top of each other, and you want to get out. But there’s really limited places you can go to, and you can’t see the people that you most want to see. And I think this is the first time that our kids probably are realizing the limits of technology…
GEWIRTZ: …The emotional limits of technology.
TURNER: Well, and, you know, one of the things that I’ve heard and I’ve had to lean into as a parent myself – you know, I had lots of child psychologists say, you know, the most important thing in a moment like this – you’ve got to take care of yourself. You’ve got to make sure you’re in a healthy headspace in order to deal with the situation. I’m curious. What sort of guidance do you have for parents and caregivers right now who are doing their best – but let’s face it. Even if illness has not come to your household, even if you do still have a job, it’s still hard.
GEWIRTZ: Absolutely. So how kids perceive this and the effect of this pandemic on children is largely going to be experienced through the bubble of their family. Stressed parents – and we know this from many, many decades of research – stressed parents have stressed-out kids. So the best thing that we can do is understand how the stress affects us, respond to that stress ourselves before you interact with your child.
Often, you know, I’ll talk with people about how to have conversations about COVID-19 with your children. And I’ll say, just figure out what your own concerns are first to make sure that you can truly listen to your child and that your agenda is not driven by your own concerns because often, our children have worries that we have no idea about. The child’s mind thinks very differently from an adult’s mind. But we won’t hear it unless we can listen without our own concerns sort of infecting the conversation.
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