An era is defined by a memorable event that is often a watershed moment that changes the way we think about something. In fact, what usually happens is that a change is sparked and that change causes humanity to redefine the norms. Whether it was for the positive, like the invention of the printing press, or for the negative, like the Black Plague, the world is never the same after the event occurs.
Enter the COVID pandemic of 2020. Hoarding toilet paper and water, acquiring masks and hand sanitizers, Zoom meetings and virtual get-togethers become happenstance. Schools are vacillating between being opened and closed. Different views and standards on masking, vaccinations are set and then modified to create new mandatory rules. Children and teens experience so much loss from lost graduations, an entire summer of fun, extra-curricular activities and sports, part-time jobs for dollars and resume building, and family get-togethers, let alone the illness itself or fear of contaminating others. Yet we asked the kids to pivot, to be resilient and to make the best of an unprecedented situation. The truth is very clear now. No one has gone through this pandemic without some scars, including our children and teens.
For some, the COVID pandemic has been the cause for trauma. A traumatic event is said to occur when a person is physically threatened or sees another person in a dangerous situation. It is important to understand that the event does not have to be life-threatening in order to cause trauma, because trauma is really about the person’s reaction to the distressing event. In other words, not every child is going to have the same reaction to the threat, and the child’s temperament, past experiences and coping strategies will have an effect on their reaction. So no, though every child will have experienced the COVID rollercoaster and lockdowns by virtue of being alive over the past two years, not every child has been traumatized. But something has changed for all children and teens. Today, all children and teens are experiencing an adjustment disorder.
Diagnostic Criteria for adjustment disorders:
- Having emotional or behavioral symptoms within three months of a specific stressor occurring in your life
- Experiencing more stress than would normally be expected in response to a stressful life event and/or having stress that causes significant problems in your relationships, at work or at school
- Symptoms are not the result of another mental health disorder or part of normal grieving
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). American Psychiatric Association
Perhaps what we should be turning our attention to as parents, educators and caring human beings is the idea that as a group, our children and teens are suffering from an adjustment disorder. Without having to pinpoint one event in particular, a lost monumental experience, being isolated from friends and family, or having to learn online, no one has gone unscathed. Perhaps then, we should be trying to help our children and teens in a new way. An adjustment disorder is a reaction to a situation or event that may NOT be a life-threatening event, but it still causes emotional and behavioural changes for a child. This reaction is sometimes viewed as excessive by adults, but these reactions are real and can lead to anxiety, depression and disruptive behaviour for children and teens. Having an adjustment disorder can significantly impair a child’s ability to engage academically and socially. For younger children, they may be more teary, more worried or have difficulty separating from parents. For teens, parents and teachers may notice a nervousness, depressed mood, or oppositional behaviours.
Perhaps as a society it is time to do something different for this group.
Change the timeline. These individuals need time to heal and to readjust to the current situation. As adults, we should be allowing for that time by being empathetic and even altering some expectations so that they have time to adjust. By constantly telling them that they are “behind” and “going to struggle because of what they have missed,” we are not being helpful, we are adding to their anxiety.
Listen and allow children and teens to express, discuss and vent about their thoughts about the situation and their feelings, whether you share them or not. All emotions are valid and human. They need to be expressed. Do not jump in to “correct” their feelings and refrain from cheerleading for your child or jumping into to fix everything.
Be patient and allow time for children and teens to practice skills that they may have lost or had no time to master. This is particularly important in the area of social skills, (turn-taking, risk-taking and engaging with new people), as well as basic academic skills.
Let some things slide. Readjust your priorities and manage your own anxiety. If you find that you need help, seek it out as it is a good model for your child to see. Stop comparing your child to others, even their older siblings. Not everyone experiences things in the same way, reacts to it to the same degree, or adjusts to it on the same timeline. Healing is often more of a marathon than a sprint. If you keep the goals small and achievable, the child will feel positive and build momentum to succeed.
The pandemic has taught us all that we are not in control and that old standards and markers of success need to be revisited or we may be exacerbating the current mental health crisis.
BA, OTC, MA
Professional Colleague of the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies
Guidance Counsellor: OCT Registration 255938
SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions) Provider
Ontario Association of Mental Health Providers 7034-G
About Leanne Matlow
Leanne Matlow has spent her entire career working with children as a teacher, Special Education Resource Teacher, and Cognitive Behavior Therapy Counsellor. Leanne is a Professional Colleague of the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy. Her first children’s book, Thinking About Thoughts, is a recommended reading for parents on KidsMentalHealth.ca. and was awarded a Silver Medal by Mom’s Choice Awards. Leanne is an advocate for identifying anxiety and mental health issues in school, camp and other settings and in developing practical strategies to help lessen the suffering that is experienced as a result. To bring that message to our entire community, Leanne has created Mental Health Empowerment Day to end stigma, build community and provide education. To see past events, check out the website www.mhed.ca.