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Child Trauma in the Time of COVID-19

March, 2021

Everyone has felt it—the stress of a year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic. Locked up in our homes, isolated from family and friends, we have felt the strain. We have felt the fear of catching the disease ourselves or having family members and friends succumb.

Some of us have even had to cope with the grief of losing someone to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, many schools have closed to in-person learning and have gone entirely to virtual learning. Workplaces have closed, leaving us to work from out of our homes, reducing hours or even losing our jobs, leading to financial woes. For some, it has even led to losing homes.

What has all this done to our children?

Trauma occurs when a stressful experience overwhelms a child’s natural ability to cope. When we think of trauma, we usually first think of physical or emotional abuse or neglect—but dealing with the stresses and fears of the pandemic can also cause trauma.

When a child is traumatized, we may observe some of these changes in their behaviors and emotions:

  • Difficulty focusing on tasks
  • Impaired memory
  • Inability to regulate emotions
  • Difficulty forming attachments to caregivers
  • Chronic illness such as reoccurring headaches, stomach aches
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Mood changes such as increase in aggressiveness, crying, irritability
  • Attempting to run away
  • Being unresponsive or depressed, withdrawn
  • Exhibiting trust issues
  • Loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable
  • Self-harm such as cutting to alleviate emotional pain

When we see any of these behaviors, it is a child’s way of asking for help. Children communicate through behaviors.

Stress that lasts more than 20 minutes at a time can cause damage to the child. Sustained stress causes changes in our cells and brain wiring. Stress hormones, or cortisol, are toxic to brain cells. Studies show that prolonged stress that has not been addressed can lead to chronic health conditions and problematic behaviors.

“One of the greatest stressors we have observed in children during this past year is their loss of connection to people in school that they used to be able to go to, to talk to,” says Susan Davis, Behavioral Health program manager at Family & Children Services. “Initially, when schools first closed, we actually saw a decrease in kids’ stress levels. School can be stressful, especially for children experiencing mental health issues. But then, as time passed, children were closed in with stressed adults, struggling with technology issues to keep up with schoolwork, and they lost their ability to talk to friends, to teachers or coaches or grandparents. Some have even started to talk about suicide.”

“A protective factor against stress is a sense of belonging,” adds Diane Marquess, director of behavioral health services at Family & Children Services. “COVID-19 cut off that sense when kids lost access to the persons outside of their homes they trust and who care about them.”

What can we—as adults—do to help the children around us cope with pandemic stress?

“Be calm, be patient,” Marquess says. “Listen. Make eye contact. Give longer hugs—20 seconds or more. We are all stressed, but adults need to be role models for our children on how to handle stress. We shouldn’t put adult issues on children, because they interpret things differently, so make sure your talk about the pandemic is age appropriate. And as hard as it may be right now, try not to change routines too much. Routines can be a comfort.”

“Parents need to reach out and be creative, find ways to engage with their kids in a different way,” Davis says. “Think about things you can do as a family. Do puzzles together, cook meals together, or ask your child to introduce you to a show he or she likes and then sit down to watch it together.”

While everyone is eagerly looking forward to that time—whenever that might arrive—that we can return to life as we knew it and spend time together again, Marquess and Davis warn that when schools open their doors again, it may not be an entirely wonderful experience.

“Although it may seem great at first to get back into school,” Marquess says, “we need to remember that school was not a positive experience for all children, and they will still need support.”

Every circumstance comes with its own set of ups and downs and returning to a socially connected world will be no different. Whatever the stress, there are several factors, developed by Rich Lerner, PhD, and Ken Ginsburg, MD, that help children cope with adversity:

  • Competence – “I can do this!”
  • Confidence – “I can do this well!”
  • Connection – “I belong here.”
  • Character – “What I say and do affects others.”
  • Caring – “I can see your point of view and it matters to me.”
  • Contribution – “I have a purpose in life.”
  • Coping – “I have healthy ways of coping with stress.”
  • Control – “I have power in my choices and actions.”

When all else fails, Marquess and Davis advise, call for help. We are here—before, during, and after the pandemic. Family & Children Services offers compassionate counseling and crisis response. To make an appointment with our therapists, call 269.344.0202.

The Mobile Crisis Response team at Family & Children Services is available 24/7 to help at a time of crisis. Call 269.373.6000 for an immediate response from a team of clinical professionals trained specifically to work with youth and their families. Or call 211 for a list of community resources.

Taking Care of YOU

Even when you think they aren’t paying attention to you, they are.

Children watch the adults around them and take up their cues from how they see adults behave. When there is stress in the home (or classroom), children learn from adults as role models how to respond. Even more important than what you say is what you do.

So how can you take care of YOU when you are undergoing stress?

Many of the same signs we see in traumatized children can show up in adults, too.

  • Changes in sleep routines (sleeping too much or too little)
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, depression
  • Withdrawing from others in the home
  • Headaches, stomach upset, fatigue, teeth grinding, and other physical symptoms

We can manage our stress in various ways even while modeling good coping skills for our children.

  • Talk to a friend or family member about how you are feeling
  • Take time to do something you enjoy
  • Look for new interests and hobbies
  • Stay active—a walk around the block or on a trail is just one of many ways to keep moving

And don’t beat yourself up for a lapse in your best behavior, advises Diane Marquess, director of behavioral health services, and Susan Davis, Behavioral Health program manager at Family & Children Services.

“Say you’re sorry if you make a mistake or have an outburst,” says Davis. “Share a hug. It’s good for you and your child.”

“Separate adult issues from kid issues,” Marquess says. “They hear things differently than we do. And try to maintain routines in the household. Routines can be comforting to everyone in the family.”