Anita Massari remembers when her young daughter started talking about the novel coronavirus.
“Airdrie came home from pre-K and said, ‘There’s a virus that’s in China that’s going to be scary,'” Massari said.
Airdrie, 5, was going to school four days a week at the time and her mother recalls picking her up on a Thursday in March and never going back.
Since then, life has changed — in both little and big ways — for children across the state, nation and world.
Kristina Sowar, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of New Mexico, said the extent to which children have been affected by the socially-distanced world we’ve been in for a year will depend on their home life and age.
“Some of the data as far as studies that are being conducted, and then drawing from prior studies looking at things like loneliness and social isolation, definitely would suggest that at least a fair amount of kids are experiencing pretty significant effects from it,” she said.
A lot to process
Sowar noted children have gone through extensive change in a short time and it’s a lot to process.
Airdrie’s 4-year-old sister, Florence, said she pictures the coronavirus as “a straight fire that flies through the air and captures souls.”
“I feel uncomfortable talking about it … because I feel like it’s bad for the whole world,” Florence said.
Airdrie highlighted the differences she sees in her daily life, such as having to wear a face mask when she’s out in public and using hand sanitizer a lot more now. She’s also being home schooled for kindergarten — a move Massari was already thinking about pre-pandemic and ended up diving into when schooling went virtual.
Florence has noticed changes to her routine, too. She no longer gets to go to the library every week.
In general, Sowar said the pandemic has led to social concerns for children in the 11-19 age group, such as impacts on self esteem; whereas effects on learning and peer engagement are more of a concern in younger kids.
The pandemic and the stressors that have arisen from it could lead to an increase in potentially traumatic events in kids, called adverse childhood experiences or ACEs.
“There’s definitely been discussion in the field that this is likely or should be considered an ACE in various ways,” Sowar said.
In the Massari home, the mother of two gets sad thinking about how much negativity and division the girls have seen in the world surrounding the pandemic and societal issues.
Sowar said children in the pre-middle school age group who experience more stress during the pandemic could show changes in their mood, behavior or anxiety levels.
Experts are keeping an eye out for any developmental disruptions resulting from fewer in-person interactions. Previous studies on more significant social isolation have found evidence of such disruption.
“It’s not to the point that clinically, we’re seeing a significant trend of speech or language or basic developmental concerns, especially for young babies and children,” Sowar said. “But I think there is more concern around social development — things like navigating interactions with peers, sharing or how kids play with one another, and how they learn about that as they get older. That is a piece that people are worried about.”
For the 11-19 age group, Sowar said, social ramifications are top of mind because they are “uniquely primed for social interactions” at this stage.
Some children have experienced dramatic changes during life milestones: seniors finishing high school on the computer or freshmen starting college virtually.
“We know it’s hard on the teenagers who are not getting a chance to see their friends or spend as much time socializing,” Sowar said. “And (we) are definitely seeing higher rates of anxiety, depression and, unfortunately, higher rates of suicidal ideation, and other self-harming and maladaptive coping strategies.”
Sowar said the jury is out on longer-term effects, such as how kids will feel being around other children moving forward. In part, that’s because there’s not an apples-to-apples precedent to compare the pandemic to, especially when considering virtual interactions substituting for face-to-face socializing.
“I think it’s still a little up in the air to what extent the current world — with things like online social connections and social media and other ways that this is being navigated — kind of offsets the relative in-person restrictions that we have,” she said.
Still, child psychiatrists are bracing for any potentially increased levels of anxiety in kids about navigating the world post-pandemic.
“For example, when we go back to school, that we’re going to see higher rates of … avoidance or anxiety about school,” Sowar said.
If parents are worried about how the pandemic is affecting their child, Sowar said they’re encouraged to carve out some time to check in one-on-one. It’s also beneficial to prioritize connecting with other people, she said, whether that be with an online group project or a Zoom with extended family.
“We know stress levels are higher, and people are often being critical on themselves or anxious about all these potential negative outcomes. And there’s so much we can’t control with what’s happening. And so I think we always try to help encourage families to be thinking about what are just little tangible things that they can do day to day,” Sowar said.
Massari said she’s grateful that living remotely in the Chama area has allowed a lot of the girls’ life to remain the same: getting outside as a family, preparing meals together and playing music.
Sowar also pointed out that some positives have been born from the pandemic. For some, it’s offered an insight into priorities and relationships.
For others, the silver linings are a little less philosophical. Florence said she kind of likes lock-down life, because it means more time at home watching movies.