Pandemics can be indiscriminate, with viruses making no distinctions among the victims they attack and those they spare. If you’re human, you’ll do. COVID-19 has been different, particularly when it comes to age. The disease has shown a special animus for older people, with those 65-plus considered at especially high risk for hospitalization and death, and those 18 and below catching a semblance of an epidemiological break. Though a small share of adolescents have suffered severe cases, most who contract the disease in that age cohort are likelier to experience milder symptoms or none at all.
But if COVID-19 is sparing most kids’ bodies, it’s not being so kind to their minds. Nobody is immune to the stress that comes with a pandemic and related quarantining. Children, however, may be at particular risk. Living in a universe that is already out of their control, they can become especially shaken when the verities they count on to give the world order–the rituals in their lives, the very day-to-dayness of living–get blown to bits.
“I worry that kids will get a double wallop,” says Ezra Golberstein, a health-policy researcher at the University of Minnesota. “There’s the disease itself and the fear of it. On top of that, you’ve got the lock-downs, with kids removed from the school environment and their friends.” As summer approached, many of the 12,000 camps in the U.S. either postponed their seasons or canceled them altogether, further leaving children isolated. “Especially for kids predis-posed to seeing the world in pessimistic terms, there will be more anxiety because they feel so much more out of control,” says Mary Alvord, a Maryland-based psychologist specializing in children, and co-author of Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents. “We’re hearing kids say, ‘I’m afraid for myself, for my parents. What if we get sick?’”
Now, as the next school year approaches, there’s even more uncertainty. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for schools, analyzing the comparative infection risks for three different scenarios: continuing all-remote learning (what it calls “lowest risk”); mixing some remote learning with inperson classes and social distancing (“more risk”); and resuming full-time attendance (“highest risk”). It’s impossible to say which states will choose which approaches, but already, the massive Los Angeles and San Diego school systems have announced that they will begin the school year with remote learning only–a decision that means yet more quarantining for 825,000 students. They surely won’t be the only ones.
Loneliness in lockdown is common for kids separated from their friends. But all children will not be emotionally rattled by the pandemic equally–or even at all; COVID-19 will affect them to different degrees and in different ways. Roxane Cohen Silver, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, specializes in human responses to mass trauma and has most closely studied the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. and the 2006 and 2010 earthquakes in Indonesia and Chile, respectively. Though nobody in any culture does especially well in a time of such tragedy, Silver has found that the closer individuals are to a crisis–both geographically and personally–the greater the impact. People in New York City and Washington, D.C., had more acute reactions to 9/11 than people more removed from the terrorist strikes. The coronavirus is similarly hitting some people harder than others.
“The impact on a child’s sense of safety depends on the extent to which the family is affected,” Silver says. “If there is a loss or if the family has a drastic change in their economic consequences, this event would shape the children’s view of the world.”
But being able to avoid personal loss is not the same as avoiding the fear of it, and children are very much aware of what’s at stake. “I have a grandma and a grandpa who are very old, and it can infect them and they may die,” said 4-year-old Benjy Taksa of Houston, in a very brief mom-supervised interview with TIME. Lisa Taksa, Benjy’s mother, says her son doesn’t otherwise seem anxious about the pandemic, and to the extent he does, he is finding ways to cope. “In his play I’ll hear him say, ‘This bear is going to the museum, and he has to wear his mask,’” she says.
Another variable is whether a child came into the crisis with pre-existing mental-health problems. In the U.S., 7.1% of children in the 3-to-17 age group have been diagnosed with anxiety, according to the CDC. An additional 3.2% in the same age group suffer from depression. Then there are the 7.4% with diagnosed behavior problems and the 9.4% with ADHD. Silver found that in the aftermath of 9/11, adolescents’ level of distress closely tracked whether or not they had a history of such conditions. Other experts expect to see that pattern repeated because of COVID-19.
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