Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Is the Pandemic Causing Children’s Anxiety to Go Up or Down?

How are your kids managing at home?

Public Domain Pictures
Source: Public Domain Pictures

We are in the midst of a terrible pandemic. Certainly, there is cause for all of us to be anxious, but I want to focus here on the effect on children.

It is a well-established fact that anxiety levels among schoolchildren have risen to record levels in recent years. Indeed, by some estimates, as many as a third of schoolchildren suffer from anxiety sufficient for a clinical diagnosis of anxiety disorder. Although adults, especially those involved with the school system, tend to attribute students’ anxiety to almost anything other than school, kids themselves cite the pressures of school as by far the major cause.

For example, in a survey a few years ago, the American Psychological Association found that teenagers are the most anxious people in America and that 83 percent cited school as a source if not the source of their anxiety. Nothing else came close. The same study showed that reported anxiety levels among teens were on average half as great during summer vacation as when school was in session, and other research has revealed that the rates of mental health admissions and suicides for school-age children are twice as high when school is in session as they are during school vacations (here). Moreover, as new school policies push the pressures down to ever-younger children, we find ever more reports of high levels of anxiety among elementary students, even kindergarteners (here and here).

Although school is the major problem, I don’t think it is the only problem. Even when children are not in school or doing homework, they are quite likely to be in other adult-directed, school-like activities. As I have spelled out elsewhere, the result is that children are severely deprived of play, and play deprivation is a major cause of depression, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness in children.

Suddenly now, because of the coronavirus, school and all those organized out-of-school activities are closed. Suddenly, much of the immediate pressure of school is gone, even if the schools are requiring some schoolwork at home. Suddenly, kids have time that is their own. How are they dealing with it? Do children who may not have experienced such freedom since they were 4 years old even know what to do with it? What are they doing? And is the result an increase or decrease in their anxiety? Anxiety might increase for some of the same reasons it might be increasing in adults—fear of disease, disruption in normal routines, being cooped up with family members who don’t always get along, uncertainty about the future. But it might decrease because of the reduced pressures and increased opportunities for self-chosen activities, even though the activities are limited because they can’t get together physically with friends.

I’ve received comments, on Facebook, from parents suggesting that at least some children are making great use of this free time and are thriving. For some families, this is an eye-opening experience that may lead to long-lasting beneficial changes in family life. Here is a sample of such comments:

  • “My 14-year old son wants to build a computer and revamp the mancave into his own space and work on his Eagle-required and other Boy Scout merit badges and play chess and hike the Appalachian Trail, all goals he had NO TIME to ponder prior to our quarantine but all very worthy and SELF-MOTIVATED endeavors...I dare say they are maybe even more important to his development than forcing him to finish Geometry and Honors ENGLISH?! I see a silver lining for sure.”
  • “I am loving the self-directed learning that is spontaneously happening around here. Kids are teaching themselves sign language and guitar. They are reading books that we have in the house, because they haven’t gone to the library, that are sparking new interests and questions. Their creativity now is captivating! I’m thankful our district doesn’t have any online school capabilities. It would do nothing but slow down our enthusiasm.…I can’t imagine I’ll be able to send them back to school after all this.”
  • “This last week my kids have been helping me with getting the house/shed ready for spring and scootering/walking in our neighborhood with their pet rats and snake (easy for folks to follow social distancing rules). My favorite moment was when the bell on my son’s bicycle broke. He took it apart, figured out how the gears work, and put it back together. He was so excited. This week we will start our garden. The rest is really up to them. How nice it was yesterday when the streetlight came on and they rolled up the driveway; it reminded me of my childhood. Tomorrow online learning from our school district starts. How I wish it didn’t!!”
  • “Talked to a bunch of my firsties today. 4 learned to ride bikes....and both my own kids. I’ll take that as a win!"
  • “In my own private practice as a therapist, I’ve noticed that the extreme levels of anxiety en masse for children and teens is directly related to the way we typically 'do school' as a society. The mental health of many of my teen clients has already improved after only a week or two of remote learning, away from the artificially manufactured pressure they normally face.”

How are things working out for your kids? Please describe what is happening, in the comments section (click on the little comment balloon below). In what ways are they doing well, and in what ways not? Is this experience likely to create any long-lasting changes in how you and your children organize your lives? If there are enough interesting stories, I may use them in a future post.

More from Peter Gray Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today