The ongoing stress, fear, isolation and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic can bring anyone down, but many children have had an especially tough time coping emotionally.
A report from Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) found social isolation, removal from school and not maintaining daily routines are among the key stressors affecting children’s mental health.
“The isolation will have negative impacts on the children’s functional brain development because It’s important for them to interact with children from their same age group, so they can develop their cognitive areas. According to some neurologists, those impacts may be irreversible,” said psychologist Dr. Herminia Benini.
Benini, whose practice is in Oakville, Ont., recommends parents to have conversations about the pandemic in a playful and didactic way so their children can understand better what is occurring.
The March break for Ontario students was delayed until the week of April 12, and some wonder if schools will resume operations after that. The Ontario 2021 budget released in March said the province was allotting $40 million to improving online learning over the next two years.
“The exposure to computer screens has increased during the pandemic, and even though it’s a way to connect the children to their online classes, it can bring significant damage to their mental health and cognitive development,” Benini said.
Although most children are experiencing difficulties during the pandemic, Benini said there are records of positive experiences in the behaviour and development of children with health needs. Some are happier to be at home with their family, while others are relaxed because the city is emptier and quieter.
Meanwhile, other kids can be experiencing difficulties inside their home because of their parents’ aggressive behaviour.
“Many stressful events can increase the chance of violence or negative outcomes for children’s physical and mental health,” Benini said.
“The concern with the chores and remote work, the fear of losing their job or even the lack of work can generate more anxiety, irritability and less patience to deal with the daily lives and needs of children,” she said.
Nayara Cardoso, mother of Pedro, 7, and Luisa, 2, live in Toronto, and noticed the changes the pandemic brought to her children.
“Pedro and Luisa are feeling a lot of anxiety, which increased in the winter because we stayed more at home,” Cardoso said. “Irritation, nervousness and boredom are some of the factors that were visible to us.
“Pedro changed a lot of his behaviour and started to lose his temper over small things as the pandemic got worse,” she said.
Cardoso said at the beginning of the pandemic, Pedro enjoyed the idea of staying home. But after a year of online learning, he wasn’t doing as well as in the past, so she and her husband asked him if he wanted to return to school. He did.
“I think the school did a good job explaining the virus,” she said. “Pedro understands it’s dangerous, that he needs to wash his hands, and if there is no soap, use hand sanitizer, and that mask is mandatory.
“For Luisa, it was automatic, she saw us wearing a mask and wanted to copy what we did,” Cardoso said.
She is scared of the negative impacts of this pandemic, especially in Luisa’s case, who didn’t have much contact with other children.
According to neurologists, social interaction helps children to develop their sense of self and responsibility. Sharing, setting boundaries, and problem-solving are a few of the important skills that can be learned.
“Online learning helped Pedro to create more independence and responsibility. However, I noticed he’s more impatient, which may be an effect of his lack of socialization with other children,” Cardoso said.
Carol Almeida said it’s been a year since her son, Oliver, 5, started online classes. It was a challenge for her to manage a routine where she could work from home and help him adapt to school.
“I worry about the fact that he hasn’t gone to school for a year, because he needs to have contact with other children,” said Almeida, who lives in Mississauga, Ont. “I noticed that after five months of lockdown, he developed something that seemed like a tic,”
“He was always running his hand over his belly and shoulder,” she said “I asked him why he was doing that but he couldn’t explain it to me.
He didn’t know how to explain what he was feeling with the whole pandemic situation,” Almeida said.
She told Oliver how much she misses going out and seeing her friends, in the hope he could try to communicate what he was feeling. Shortly after, Oliver picked one of his stuffed animals and started to build a friendship with it, bringing the toy everywhere he went and treating it like a person.
“I noticed that after he built that connexion with the toy, the tic stopped,” Almeida said. “The toy was playing an emotional role that Oliver needed but couldn’t explain. He was happy because he found a friend.”
“When we go out, he instantly distances himself from people, which concerns me,” she said. “I want him to understand that the virus it’s dangerous but that it won’t last forever. I don’t want him to think that he can’t get close to people anymore.”