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.

Especially for younger children who do not remember life before COVID-19, “I don’t know if we can know for sure what the long-term outcome will be,” said Brittany Chenenko, who has a master’s in education and is a permit-holding licensed mental health counselor at Cleveland Emotional Health in Geneseo.

The acute issues presenting at her practice include young children with social issues. They 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.

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.

“Teachers are doing their absolute best but without some of those skills, kids won’t emotionally be where they should be,” Chenenko said. “They won’t have those social skills because of the pandemic.”

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.

“It’s been hard to go back to the conventional way of doing things,” Chenenko said. “They had a year where they didn’t have to do it that way. Not knowing what will happen next will cause stress in teens and middle schoolers.”

In addition to life lessons, children’s academic lessons are less than ideal for most children. As children exhibit different learning styles, 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, Cheneko does see a few positives, such as the display of resilience from so many children as they figure out how to make life work.

“This will serve them very well in the future,” she said.

She advises parents to ask their children how they are feeling. A chart of angry, sad, ill and happy faces may help very young children.

“Children need to know that it’s appropriate to have feelings,” she said.

She added that parents should help their children find appropriate, healthy ways to cope, such as practicing mindfulness.

Matt Devine, doctor of osteopathic medicine at Highland Family Medicine, reminds parents to continue to expand on their children’s social and physical interaction, an element largely missing from their lives in the past two years.

“We’ve spent a lot of time as physicians saying, ‘Don’t use your devices a certain period of the day; but we can’t advise that as we have had no other choices,” he said. “As we come out of this, I’d like to get back to that discussion of limiting that technology time.”

He fears that long-term implications of the pandemic could be less fit and healthy children if they become accustomed to sedentary life. Instead, he encourages parents to get their children involved in physical activities they enjoy, whether an organized sport or outdoor play time riding bikes, climbing on playground equipment or playing tag.

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.

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.

Psychologist Christina McCann, Ph.D., in private practice in Rochester, tells parents to mitigate this effect by asking the school district as to what in the curriculum will address these gaps for both academic and social issues.

“School has the biggest access to the child’s peer groups,” she said. “Maybe parents can support or look to the school districts to see what in the curriculum can address these gaps.

“Parents can also encourage an anxious child to start having more social contacts with friends.”

It may feel easier to shield anxious children from this distress by allowing them to continue holing up at home.

“In the end, that can worsen the situation,” McCann added.

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