Lost Years

For kids and teens, it’s been hard to go back to the conventional way of doing things

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Children have been through an awful lot in the past two years: online classes; social isolation; few in-person social outlets and interactions; constant stress from family finances, work and school changes; plenty of negative news media coverage; ever-shifting COVID-19 protocols; and fear of the virus itself.

These factors can all contribute to a host of issues for children, including stunted social skills, developmental delays, learning issues, anxiety and depression.

“General behavioral health needs with teens and substance use have been a huge, huge concern,” said Edward Cichon, director of marketing and communications for Cazenovia Recovery in Buffalo. “There’s clear data that this population has been hard hit by the pandemic. It’s led to substance abuse issues.”

Especially for younger children who do not remember life before COVID-19, it can be difficult to tell what the long-term effects could be.

“There’s certainly been a loss,” said physician Michael DiGiacomo with UBMD Psychiatry. “Kids are not getting a full academic experience, especially the end of the 2019-20 school year and the 2020-21 school year.

Kids are learning what they can, but certainly not to the same extent as if they were in person. It’s stressful to show up at school. There’s all the stress on six feet apart, masks and Plexiglas.”

Children have missed life lessons such as how to make friends with someone new, settle small squabbles with children they do not know or develop understanding with someone from a different background. Oftentimes, these situations occur on the playground, while waiting in line or during other incidental, unplanned times during a school day.

Children may struggle to understand sharing, taking turns and resolving minor conflict because those serendipitous interactions they would experience at school do not happen during Zoom and Facetime “playdates” arranged with their pre-COVID-19 friends.

DiGiacomo said that adolescents are becoming more involved with their online activities, gravitating towards internet friends instead of in-person friends, which has led to an uptick in cyberbullying and online drama.

While the isolation may have felt like a godsend to more introverted children, isolation prevents them from becoming as social as they could be.

For older children who are home by themselves more, the lack of structure in their school day followed by the shock of returning to in-person classes has been challenging.

“The routine of getting ready is lost and the structure and support,” DiGiacomo said. “It has been very difficult and puts them at risk for depression, anxiety and sometimes suicidal ideation and attempts.”

Online schooling is less than ideal for most children. As children exhibit different learning style—some are more hands-on, others prefer the explanation inherent to a lecture, still more like reading over doing or hearing—virtual learning has hamstrung teachers to instruct in fewer styles than they could in the classroom.

While the struggles of the past two years have certainly made typical development more difficult, DiGiacomo does see a few positives, such as the display of resilience from so many children as they figure out how to make life work, as well as a sense of gratitude for health and relationships.

Joshua Russell, child and adolescent psychiatrist with UBMD Psychiatry and assistant professor at Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, University at Buffalo, encourages parents to get creative with social interactions while staying safe according to current guidelines.

“Create opportunities where there’s mask breaks,” Russell said. “Or, do playdates that are shorter. Or have everyone get some space to take the masks off. It’s still important to get kids the social experiences that are harder to come by now.”

Gently reintroducing social activities to anxious children will better prepare children for long-term social success.

The academic gaps concern many parents. However, they should keep in mind that this factor is universal. Nearly all children are expected to have some degree of lag in their schooling, so an amount of remedial work is normal.

Russell said that parents should try to introduce hands-on educational experiences at home, as younger children absorb information better that way, although “screens can still be useful if there are ways to make it interactive, like sing-along programs. Also, parents can look up printouts for kids to fill out or turning math concepts into a game. Or take time to just read with kids. They can supplement some of the learning.”

Parents can use the summer to help make up for lost time. Bringing home more library books, engaging in educational outings such as to places like museums, open houses and cultural points of interest and using educational media such as games, documentaries and puzzles can help children feel better prepared for the next school year.