The Effect of the Pandemic on Kids, Teenagers and Families

Thoughts of experts in psychology on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Posted Nov 21, 2020

With the anxiety of the elections (somewhat) behind us, it is time again to focus on the pandemic and its effects. It has now been several months since the pandemic hit, and there seems to be no clear end in sight. At this time of prolonged uncertainty, children and teenagers are hit especially hard. I had the opportunity recently to moderate a discussion between three experts on psychology, Dr. Steven Berkowitz, a professor in psychiatry at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Dr. Kendra Parris, a psychologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and Dr. June Gruber, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, on the effects of the pandemic on kids, teens, and college students. The discussion was timely and filled with unique insights that I think most parents will appreciate. The experts also shared quite a few resources that parents could use to help themselves and their families.

The pandemic’s effect on social justice issues

All three of the experts stressed how there are several issues intertwined within this pandemic, including economic and social inequalities. We discussed social justice issues, and those of race and identity, and how these affect individuals’ responses to the pandemic. Dr. Berkowitz spoke about how he is worried for underrepresented communities, and how, apart from all the other challenges that they are facing, they are also having to deal with an uptick in violence at this time. Citing the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina as an example, he mentioned how the worst to fare in disaster situations are usually middle-aged women (who are taking care of everyone else) and marginalized and poorer communities.

Effects of virtual interactions

The panel also spoke in detail about the effects of virtual interactions on children and teenagers. Dr. Gruber stressed that although our interactions have changed considerably from when face-to-face interactions were the norm, virtual interactions also provide opportunities to reap many of the benefits of social interactions.

We also addressed a clinically important question, about predisposing factors or behavioral traits that cause different children to react to the pandemic and its effects differently. Dr. Berkowitz spoke about how there are two different behavioral traits that have diametrically opposite effects on the way children deal with the pandemic and the resulting isolation. While more quiet and withdrawn kids are thriving with the reduced need for social interaction, the more outgoing and extroverted ones are the ones that are really struggling.

Effects on parents

Given how hard it can be for children to absorb information in a virtual set up, the burden on parents to take up aspects of their children’s education becomes great. Dr. Parris spoke about how the changing and multiple roles that parents are having to take up at this moment can be a source of immense stress.

The stress of the pandemic is real, and while there might be pressure to try and stay positive, it is also important to remember to allow ourselves to feel sad, or fearful, or angry if the situation warrants it. Dr. Gruber, whose research pertains to how positive emotions when taken to the extreme can have negative consequences for mental health, spoke about how feeling positive emotions in contexts that are not positive, signals that a person might not be properly attuned to the world around them. She said that rather than suppressing negative emotions and feeling pressured to feel happy in stressful times, a more adaptive response would be to allow ourselves to experience negative emotions.

Lessons to learn

Dr. Parris, who works as a pediatric psychologist at St. Jude, spoke about how the children that she works with, who usually are dealing with catastrophic illness, can teach us some valuable lessons at this time. “Many of these children for years have had to do the things that our society is now being asked to do,” she said. They have to wear masks and socially distance, and are sometimes too sick to go to school. “And yet what we have seen through years of research and years of clinical work with these patients and families is that they can be quite resilient, and they can be quite compliant with these restrictions and guidelines, particularly when the restrictions and guidelines are normalized, and when people are surrounding them with support…. And my hope is that people can find meaning from the experiences that they're going through now, and that we can all heal and grow from this.”

I think that is a poignant way for me to end this post. I hope children, teenagers, and families can get through this difficult time together, with each others’ support and guidance.

You can watch the entire video here: