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As we begin shedding our masks and reconsidering vaccine mandates, and COVID-19 shifts from its pandemic phase to becoming endemic, attention can now turn to what this devastating health crisis has done to children’s mental health and their ability to hit developmental milestones — and what we must do to help them avoid serious long-term consequences.
The kids will only be alright if we take specific actions to prioritize their needs.
While it’s true that children are resilient, not enough attention is being paid to the resources they require to move forward on a healthy developmental path — and to avoid being permanently scarred by this pandemic.
Here’s how we can help them adapt and recover:
First, we should work to guarantee that every child has at least one competent, tuned-in caregiver who will provide stability, sensitive care, and guidance. And caregiving doesn’t happen in isolation inside the home. It’s ties to friends, family, and community that enable adults to meet children’s needs. Increased funding for mental health and parent support programs, flexible work arrangements, and better access to child care outside of the home are a good place to start.
Second, we should shift away from talking about “academic loss” and instead focus on the skills that matter for longer-term development. Executive function skills — such as self and emotion regulation, motivation, focus and attention, problem-solving, flexible thinking, and persistence — are being built or reinforced at all ages during everyday interactions. Parents tend to underestimate the impact they have on their children’s brain-building, but it’s playing Simon Says with a preschooler or helping a teen start organizing his or her own schedule of after-school activities that bolsters resilience and predicts positive developmental outcomes. Decades of research have shown that these seemingly small everyday interactions are fundamental to lifelong learning.
Finally, let’s prioritize our children’s recovery by allocating more funding for school support and training programs that will teach core skills and support teachers. Those who educate our children spend many hours with them each week and have a front-row seat to their development. Therefore, we want them to have the resources they need to intervene and help get kids back on track. As it stands right now, many teachers and administrators are stretched thin and on the verge of burnout.
We’re at a pivotal point. Youth mental health disorders were already occurring at stunning rates prior to — and have increased at an alarming rate during — the pandemic. Rates of psychological distress among children and teens, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, are rising dramatically. A recent U.S. surgeon general’s report found that symptoms related to depression and anxiety in children and teens doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety-related symptoms.
We can’t afford to let this fester and become permanent harm for an entire generation of children. We can’t pretend that the past two years didn’t happen and return to our normal lives, expecting that our children will simply “get over” this dark, scary period and gleefully embrace a post-pandemic world. That’s asking too much of them. More than 200,000 kids have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID, and millions who didn’t lose anyone they love are still scarred by having lived through this much turmoil. Frankly, we all need some time and proper support to process what happened and recover.
The good news is that scientific findings point to an opening for learning and growth during a crisis. In times of hardship, children and adolescents can learn that they do have the capacity to manage stress and still be alright. This lesson is carried forward as they develop greater independence. What both our clinical experiences and research show us is that children’s ability to handle stress — chronic or situational — depends almost entirely on the presence and attention of the caring adults in their lives. In fact, the single most common factor in developing these abilities is having at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other grownup, including teachers.
Pandemic or not, life always has ups and downs, and children need help learning to navigate. It’s up to us to help them navigate this new, exciting world — one where we won’t need to keep each other at arm’s length (or six feet apart) for safety reasons. When we recognize and elevate children’s needs, we’ll ensure they can thrive and be productive in a future that now, thankfully, is looking like brighter days are ahead.
Klein is director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive. Pressman is co-founding director of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center and host of the podcast Raising Good Humans. This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News.