As we continue to navigate the unchartered waters of the current pandemic, many are looking to the future and what it holds. And while it’s hard to predict how long our current daily life modifications will last, what we do know is that the experience of this trauma will have personal changes that could last for years to come. Trauma can affect people of any age and in varying ways. Children and teens are especially vulnerable since development has not stopped. Understanding the effects of the current pandemic is key in helping them bounce back faster when life returns to “normal.”
Children are, undoubtedly, resilient. However, this doesn’t automatically mean that they won’t suffer after a traumatic event. And while children from homes that were unstable prior to our COVID-19 crisis will be more affected, any child could suffer from symptoms of PTSD following this. During trauma, the brain is inundated with Cortisol, the stress hormone, and changes in the brain can result. This is especially true for children and teens who are still undergoing brain development. And since children are always viewed as resilient, parents and caregivers often miss signs of stress and, therefore, miss out on opportunities to help.
Just as children and teens react to daily events in different ways, they also react to trauma differently. Younger children may exhibit symptoms such as clinginess, increased tantrums, regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking, and stomachaches. Those in the middle childhood stage may become more irritable, have difficulty concentrating, develop irrational fears, and have nightmares. Pre-teens and teens show warning signs such as anxiety, loss of interest in activities, disrespect, and self-destructive behaviors. It’s important to note, however, that even among the same age groups, reactions to the same traumatic event will look different.
The good thing is, not all children and teens will develop long-lasting symptoms following trauma. However, being able to recognize and respond to acute stress is imperative as well. By being attuned and connecting with their children, parents can create an age-appropriate dialogue for children and teens to talk about their feelings. Implementing a healthy diet and decreasing sugar intake will also reduce stress. Along with this, role-modeling healthy coping skills will also instill behaviors that will be useful in the future.
After most traumatic events, people rely on their friends, family, and community to help ease the stress. And, although, we can’t be “together” like we usually are, we can still utilize each other. For children and teens this means keeping some routine things in place to provide an outlet. Virtual play dates with friends, social media games and virtual sports training can all keep children and teens connected to other friends, other caregivers, and coaches. Keeping them engaged in fun activities will help them build confidence again and stay connected to people that love and support them.
The effects of this pandemic will continue long after the reopening of our country and may create long term stamps on generations affected. And while we can’t predict the ways each person will be affected, we must be knowledgeable of the ways trauma presents itself in our children and teens so we can be proactive in our approach and help them bounce back quickly. Preserving connectedness for children and teens to their community will increase their ability to feel secure, even in the midst of uncertainty.