First published in the Natural Parent Magazine.
It’s certain that, as time goes on, there will be ongoing research published and books written on the impacts of the pandemic on child development. Yet there’s already a busy community of researchers around the globe working to measure these impacts and starting to share their findings and I’ve added a couple of research references to the end. But I want to share some of the impacts on individual children in families I’ve had contact with, and families who my peaceful parenting instructors have been supporting with my supervision. Despite the pandemic being less and less in the forefront of everyone’s minds, I believe the effects on child development are ongoing and a subject worthy of discussion. The bigger the impact of something that destabilizes us, the bigger the project of healing and recovery. The more a parent is aware of the potential impacts on their child, the more equipped they are to help them process or repair such impacts.
Social, emotional and language development.
As a result of the lockdowns, social distancing, reduced contact with family or friends, and general disruptions to life’s normal rhythms and routines in 2020 and 2021, many parents and teachers noticed that previously confident and sociable children had become more socially awkward or anxious. Many children who would rarely get upset or reactive, started to become overwhelmed more often, displaying reactive behaviours. Many parents have noticed a regression in their child’s language development as a result of both less social contact and more emotional and physical distance.
Additionally, the child’s brain is hardwired to be constantly matching words with mouth movements and facial expressions. So, unsurprisingly, the widespread use of masks has undoubtedly stunted verbal and body language development in many children. Parents have also reported regressions in their ability to identify and name emotions following the many language and social changes. In addition to impairment of the visual information, masks can muffle speech making auditory processing more difficult. And this is the case even with neurotypical children who don’t already have sensory processing or other neurological challenges. I don’t imagine many of us could have ever anticipated the avalanche of health-related measures, restrictions and changes to normal life and society that we’ve all experienced this last three years. Pretty much all around the globe, every family, parent, child, teacher and caregiver has faced challenges and ethical dilemmas that most were largely unprepared for.
What insights can I bring to this topic?
Running the Peaceful Parent Institute, I’m in the profession of listening to the deeper and very complex issues that my clients are experiencing. Counsellors and parent educators have perhaps gained a different perspective through their long hours spent as compassionate witnesses to the many and varied challenges that covid has brought to families. I worked extensively with families during the pandemic, as did many of my Certified Instructors and ‘in training’ parent coaches. Not just in New Zealand but around the globe. Each family faces different challenges and also each parent has a different frame through which they view those challenges.
I’ll share some examples having modified identifying factors to preserve anonymity for the families.
We need to really stop and think about all these pandemic related changes and experiences from the perspective of the child who has no way of cognitively grasping the reasons for these measures. Children need to make sense of that which is hard for them, and when they can’t, it becomes very difficult to come to terms with their challenges. When the child hasn’t been able to understand and come to terms with changes in their life, they generally carry undigested, unprocessed emotions that they need our help to release. Just about all peaceful parenting approaches that a parent adopts in their day to day challenges can have a beautifully healing and therapeutic effect on their child and inch by inch help them feel safe and secure again. With this in mind, we’re currently offering a discount on our 10 Day Peaceful Parent Challenge.
Secure attachment is based on the child maintaining physical and emotional closeness.
If you suspect that your child has developed separation anxiety or otherwise been affected and you’re wondering what you can do about it, a good place to start would be reading my article Helping children adapt to change. Alternatively, if you’re the kind of person who prefers a more structured and guided approach, the 10 Day Peaceful Parent Challenge will help you to strengthen your bond with your child and increase their sense of secure attachment. Having this secure attachment is like having a strong base which gives children far more capacity to cope with and deal with life which is good news for everyone! *Btw we’re currently offering 20% off this eCourse. Use coupon code 10DAY20 at checkout.
Six year old girl developed germ phobia.
A girl in Australia developed severe germ phobia to the point where she would become hysterical if a visitor came to the house, or a fly landed on her clothes or furniture. Her anxieties ballooned to include more and more fears of that which potentially posed a germ threat to her or family members. Mum and dad had many loud arguments about how to deal with these new phobias, Mum opting to allow their girl to take her hand sanitizer to bed with her while Dad wanting to reduce the number of times in the day that she applied hand sanitizer. The issues also compounded as the girl developed dermatitis on her hands, and now the challenge to try different options and research the impacts of the various chemicals in the different hand sanitizer and mask products. This family are lucky enough to have accessed our professional support to help their child reduce her anxieties, increase her sense of security, and generally work to restore to her and hence the whole family a sense of safety and normality in their world again. A long journey ahead!
An 8-year-old child with autism and SPD
experienced much distress related to his mother’s cancer treatments during covid. Son and dad were not allowed into the hospital with Mum, yet because Mum was very ill, weak and had treatment related anxieties, Dad kept fighting to have as much contact with his wife and for their son to have more contact with his mother. There were many instances when the boy became anxious and dysregulated as Dad engaged in lengthy attempted negotiations with hospital staff. They often sat in the car for hours awaiting the mother being ready to leave. Times when the boy needed to use the bathroom but despite Dad’s pleas, the staff didn’t allow them to use the restrooms off the (also off limits) waiting room. The boy was usually upset that they could no longer have their hospital coffee shop treats while mum had her treatments. Had Dad been able to accept the measures, he might have been able to be more positive with his son, but Dad was going through his own personal hell to not be able to keep the family together and connected during these already distressing times. The mother being the primary attachment figure, the boy already struggled with separations from her, but the grief, confusion, anxiety and frustrations were much more heighted under such strict restrictions and state-imposed family separation.
Children being separated from their grandparents.
A 5 and 7-year-old brother and sister became increasingly distant from their grandparents over months of them no longer being able to meet face to face. Children’s upsets at not seeing their grandparents were consistently responded to with explanations of the risks of the grandparents getting sick, hence inadvertently affirming to the children that they posed a risk to their grandparent’s health. Sadly but understandably, both children slowly lost the beautiful enthusiastic bond and affection that they previously held for their grandparents. The mother resented her children refusing to talk with their grandparents on zoom until she better understood what was happening. When she sought my help, I supported the mother to learn to reduce the messages of fear and use approaches like power reversal games and active listening to help the children free themselves of all the latent emotions of fear, anxiety, loss, grief, confusion, guilt, resentment and anger that this breakdown of these essential bonds had created. Once again, it became apparent that the mother’s covid related fears had resulted in her minimizing the emotional impacts on her children until she gained more emotional support and some tools to better deal with the situation.
The story of Sandy’s 2 year old daughter.
A counselling client Sandy with lifelong anxiety had only just got to the stage of her daughter now being settled into her early childhood centre when covid hit. It had been a long journey to finally make the big move to a new centre, one that was a much better fit for her daughter. Little 2-year-old Tara had finally settled in, bonds had begun to develop with two of the teachers and a couple of the children. Between lockdowns and mum avoiding the centre when anyone in their family had as much as a sore throat, it ended up being about three months before she took Tara back to the centre. Mum talked lots about daycare enlivening her daughter with positive images and emotions around reuniting with their buddies and activities at the centre.
The reality of that reunion, however, was dramatically different. Instead of the warm, friendly, enthusiastic welcome that she had expected based on the previously super friendly demeanour of the head teacher, the reception was more like one would expect going through security in Los Angeles airport! At the gate, they were halted by a big board with all the familiar covid signs, the hand sanitizer table and very bold writing warning visitors. The teacher arrived at the door masked up clearly in high alert seeing mother and child standing there without masks! Motioning to her own mask she called out for them to put on their masks. My client scrambled to find her mask exemption and felt a twinge of humiliation explaining that masks activate her panic attacks. The teacher hesitantly accepted this and asked Sandy to sign in. Again, embarrassed she explained that she hadn’t brought her phone. Next instruction was to hand sanitize, but again Sandy felt like the problem parent explaining that her hands become raw when she applies sanitizer. In listening to the story I was very sad to learn that even after all the levels and layers of restrictions, that happy warm moment of reuniting never did happen. Sandy felt the teacher’s disapproval and felt utterly heartbroken that her daughter was experiencing such a dramatically different physical and emotional environment. Mum felt guilty and angry, she understood that the teacher was herself gripped by fear and the pressure of all the new rules, yet so many painful emotions. She made the decision to stop bringing her daughter to this, or any other centre, feeling she didn’t have the emotional capacity to go through a similar ordeal again.
My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones.
I also want to also acknowledge the families who have experienced loss through illness or suicide, families who have lost their business or job, those experiencing overwhelming financial or health problems. Loss leaves ongoing challenges. You might find some helpful tips in my article; Helping children adapt to change.
How to balance body autonomy and necessary health/ medical interventions.
This was the title of a past Natural Parent article, in which I tackled some typical challenges related to necessary medical interventions that children react to. Every parent has, to one extent or another, dealt with the stress of deeming it necessary to impose medical measures for health purposes on their child, which their child adamantly resists. Parents often, understandably, feel concerned about any anxiety or feelings of powerlessness this bring up for their child. Parents can feel incredibly conflicted, frustrated and worried in these situation. In the article I share: “The concerns for our child’s health can evoke a lot of anxiety in us parents, and this anxiety can put us into the stress response, which can really break down the connection. Yet whether it’s giving them medicine or another measure, these are times when our child most needs to truly feel and access the sense of safety that only connection can bring. It helps to remember what a huge role that the stress or happy hormones play in maximizing or minimizing pain, in optimizing or suppressing the immune system.
Your awareness of the impacts on your child changes those impacts from invisible to visible.
If you’re concerned about how your child has been impacted by certain covid measures, probably the most important factor is your mindful and caring attention of the emotional impacts on them. This awareness will result in different choices that empower you and your child. Like with all parenting issues, each parent must decide what’s best for their individual child. Only you can find your truth and the strength to follow what you believe to be right. There’s huge strength in doing that which aligns with your values and hence sharing those values with your child. This is true even if, especially if, this results in decisions that you fear are socially unacceptable and this brings up ethical dilemmas and emotional challenges. But remember the powerful modeling for your child when you do that which feels right regardless of what may be dictated by the authority figures, be it the teacher or the government
- Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Early Child Cognitive Development: Initial Findings in a Longitudinal Observational Study of Child Health https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.08.10.21261846v1
2. Standards for Objectivity and Reproducibility in High-Impact Developmental Studies—The COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2786782