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An adult consoles a sad young child
An adult consoles a sad young child
An adult consoles a sad young child

Children, Teens and Coronavirus Pandemic Fatigue

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Children and teens in many areas have been home from school since the spring, and those attending school in person are following out-of-the-ordinary safety precautions. How are kids holding up, and how can parents and guardians help them maintain mental, physical and social health?

Carisa Parrish, Ph.D., at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and co-director of Johns Hopkins’ pediatric medical psychology program, provides insights into how parents and guardians can help children and teens wait out the remaining months of the pandemic and look forward to better times.

Kids and teens are burning out on coronavirus precautions

“Children, especially teenagers, are chomping at the bit, trying to persuade their parents to lighten up on COVID-19 precautions,” says Parrish, who teaches mindfulness and uses cognitive behavioral techniques in her work with children and teens.

“The kids are frustrated, angry, depressed and resentful,” she says. “They were not meant to spend their lives in front of computers. They’ve given up so much already: their springtime, their summer, sports, birthday and graduation parties, vacations and now, the anticipation and fun of spending winter holidays with friends and family. They’re tired.”

So are their parents, Parrish notes. Lately, her work has included acting as an occasional referee between parents who want to stay the course with physical distancing, masks and hand hygiene, and kids who are over it. Parents who want to keep the kids —and the rest of the family — safe from coronavirus infection are hitting an impasse with their children, who have the normal desire to socialize with their peers.

Parents can support children by explaining that postponing what they want to do today can mean a happier tomorrow, with a better chance of loved ones staying well.

Tip for parents: Hold the line on pandemic precautions such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping hands clean and avoiding indoor gatherings. Don’t let kids wear down your resolve, and set a good example by sticking to these precautions yourself. Stay connected to other parents for social support regarding the safety guidelines.

Pandemic Fatigue — It’s OK for Kids Not to Be OK

Putting life on hold for months can seem impossible to do, especially for children and teens. It can be easier for adults to accept the grinding duration of the coronavirus pandemic while the world waits for vaccines to become widely available in 2021.

“For adults, giving up a year of life as normal is tough enough,” Parrish says. “But for children, a year is an eternity.

“Older children and teens have a strong sense of justice and fairness, which drives their idealism and their passion about how the world should be. But another side of that sense relates to their own lives. As they are learning to stand up for themselves and ask for what they want and need, it can feel outrageous that they have to give up so many important, pleasurable aspects of their lives when they have done nothing to deserve that.”

“It’s especially hard for children to see differences in what some of their peers might be allowed to do, based on their parents’ choices,” Parrish says. For instance, a child might notice on social media that a friend is having a sleepover party with a big group of friends, which he or she would not be allowed to attend. “These losses are real and must be validated,” Parrish acknowledges. “But I would caution parents against allowing the grief to soften their resolve to follow safety precautions by letting them go to the event.”

“Parents need to look at what they’re expecting from their children and teens as far as coping,” she says. “Kids aren’t going to be robots and just get in line and obey these restrictions without protest. It’s OK not to be OK. As hard as it is to see our children in mental pain, we have to remember that their safety comes first, and that those feelings are laying the groundwork for empathy.”

Tip for parents: Give your children space to voice their sadness and frustration, and don’t think their unhappiness is a reflection of your parenting. Keeping your family’s safety at the forefront is essential. 

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Coronavirus (COVID-19)

What you need to know from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Inspiring empathy can make COVID-19 precautions easier

Children start feeling and expressing empathy for others early in life. Parrish says babies and toddlers will notice one another’s distress, and even sometimes offer comfort to a crying companion. Children living with developmental delays or attention challenges may develop empathy later than their peers, Parrish notes. Some children may not display perspective-taking when feeling stressed and caught up in their own emotional turmoil.

Considering others can support children’s and teens’ commitment to COVID-19 precautions, but only if they understand how their sacrifices are keeping other people from getting sick.

For some kids — even normally insightful older ones — there’s a missing piece in their understanding of the pandemic, Parrish explains. “They are willing to take risks for themselves, figuring a few days of being sick would be worth getting to go to a party or gathering. Or, their normal sense of invulnerability may lead them to believe that they are unlikely to become infected or sick.

“What they don’t get is the fact that they could unknowingly pass the coronavirus to someone else and put that person’s life in danger. They may not be thinking of older relatives, or a classmate or neighbor who is going through cancer treatment or who has chronic medical needs like diabetes, and may be at greater risk for a serious case of COVID-19.

“There will be other sleepover parties, but there is only one favorite grandparent.”

Tip for parents: Walk children through concepts of contagious disease, and help them understand that they could have the virus and infect others without knowing it, potentially harming their friends, siblings and other relatives, caretakers and health care workers. Help kids understand the importance of coronavirus precautions. Try discussing some positive stories in the news about protecting and helping others during the pandemic.

Pandemic-related Depression Among Children and Teens: Thoughts matter

Parrish says rethinking certain attitudes can lessen some of the anguish that is wearing youth down. She explains that some of kids’ bad feelings start with thoughts.

“Children and teens can beat themselves up, just as adults do from time to time,” she says. “Things we say to ourselves mentally, we would never say to a good friend. We focus on other people being smarter, cooler, more attractive. These automatic negative thoughts are a particular problem for children living with anxiety, depression and attention problems.

“For older children and teenagers, I help them review those thoughts and ask themselves: Is this thought true? Is this thought helpful, even if it is true?

“Maybe some people you know are having a slightly easier time or making better grades or enjoying more freedom. But appearances, especially on social media, can be deceiving. Is dwelling on that other person helping you feel more joy or more peace? Is it helping you have fewer fights with your parents?”

“Re-framing the thoughts can reduce pain, create a more peaceful feeling, and reduce confrontations with parents and other family members,” Parrish says. “Children can learn these skills, which can make it easier to wait out the final months of coronavirus restrictions.

“We’re not all in the same boat, but as far as the pandemic, we’re all in the same storm. We need to be kind, look to the future and remember that young people are built to last.”

Tip for parents: Be on the lookout for persistent or worsening negative emotions, and reach out for professional help if needed. Child and adolescent mental health workers may be available through telemedicine. Offer empathy, validate your children’s emotions, and then help them shift their mindset.

boy sitting in front of a laptop at virtual school

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The novelty of having school at home may be wearing a bit thin. So, how do we keep our kids academically engaged — and happy about it?

Published December 22, 2020