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How does the corona pandemic affect children and adolescents psychologically?

What are the psychological effects of the pandemic on children and adolescents?

What we have seen in our research is that children and adolescents in the corona pandemic, like adults, also react with psychological stress. At the Ruhr University in Bochum, for example, we examined the situation with small children between the ages of zero and two. Parents describe here that children are sometimes more restless and they are less easy to calm down. In addition, the children are more emotionally unstable, they cry more easily or react by withdrawing. An important observation is that the sleep of the very young is also impaired by the exceptional situation. You wake up more often at night. For us, these are all indications that the children are burdened. But you also have to see that this does not apply to all children. We assume that around a third of children react to this stress with negative behavioral changes. Still other children are remarkably mentally healthy and, together with their parents, manage the stress well. Our data, but also new analyzes from the Robert Koch Institute, show an important aspect: the psychological well-being of children and adolescents must always be seen in the context of the psychological well-being of their parents. If the parents are doing well, the children are doing well and vice versa.

We assume that around a third of children react to this stress with negative behavioral changes. Still other children are remarkably mentally healthy and, together with their parents, manage the stress well.

Prof. Dr. Silvia Schneider

You say that the children and young people react with psychological stress. How is this noticeable, how do you measure these loads?

The children and parents are interviewed. Here we have observed that the children themselves report fears; that they are afraid of corona, for example. Reports of physical complaints, such as abdominal pain, also increase. With small children we experience that some are more afraid of separating from their mother or father. This is partly due to the fact that the switch from attending KiTa and then staying at home again, interrupting routines and getting used to the KiTa again has to be worked out again. A disturbed sleep is also an indication that the children are stressed.

At a Corona school conference via zoom two weeks ago, however, one thing also became apparent: In addition to the uncertainty, there is also a great deal of solidarity among the students. You will find opportunities, as far as possible, to maintain social contacts. They meet for a walk, exchange ideas and support one another. This is a positive side of the crisis: not only we adults, but also children and adolescents react surprisingly flexibly to new situations.

What special challenges do children and young people face as a result of the corona situation?

Childhood and youth are full of developmental tasks. In other words, challenges that a child has to master. In the first year of life this means, for example, developing a sleep-wake rhythm, learning to walk or building bonds with caregivers. Adolescence has other important developmental tasks: to break away from the parental home and to enter into new, stable peer relationships. And of course this task is now severely restricted by Corona. It is currently not possible to meet in large groups. Making new friendships and getting to know new people of the same age is extremely difficult. Instead, young people should do exactly the opposite: They should stay in tried and tested small groups and, if possible, reduce contacts with new people to a minimum. This is a challenge for our children and young people. And so it remains to be seen what that means for our children and their development. On the other hand, I am confident that many will learn to deal with this new normal. They find ways in which they can meet their needs, such as being separated from their parents.

Do the children and young people react differently?

How the children and adolescents react depends heavily on what temperament they have or what skills and competencies they already had when the pandemic began.
A child copes better with a crisis if he is open to new ideas, is socially well integrated and he grows up in a family in which there is a positive family atmosphere. Studies show that children are at a higher risk of developing mental disorders if they are socially disadvantaged or if their parents are psychologically stressed.

On the other hand, I am confident that many will learn to deal with this new normal. They find ways in which they can meet their needs, such as being separated from their parents.

Prof. Dr. Silvia Schneider

We recently got the Education researcher Kai Maaz talked about opportunities and educational equity. He made basically the same observation.

Yes, we need to realize that education and mental health are closely related. We know that a poor or missing educational qualification is a risk factor for mental disorders. It is important that we focus much more on mental health. We have to learn to better understand the conditions that are needed in order to grow up mentally healthy.

What special, short-term or long-term effects did you observe on the children and adolescents?

We see that around a third of children and adolescents react with emotional and behavioral problems. The focus here is on an increase in fears. If the fears persist, this can turn into a depressive mood. Other children react with externalizing disorders. This includes hyperactivity and aggressive behavior. It remains to be seen what long-term consequences the corona crisis will have. We do not yet know whether there will be a Long Covid Syndrome with mental disorders.

It remains to be seen what long-term consequences the corona crisis will have. We do not yet know whether there will be a Long Covid Syndrome with mental disorders.

Prof. Dr. Silvia Schneider

What do you expect in terms of long-term effects?

Personally, I believe that it depends very much on how we will all deal with this corona crisis, what story we make of it. And whether we as a society can say: We have achieved something. Such a crisis is always an opportunity and a risk at the same time. Hopefully we will be able to say that we have overcome a great danger, the greatest since the Second World War. And if we manage to take this with us as knowledge, then it can have enormous positive effects on the psyche and on our psychological resilience.

Do you have any tips for parents who could help children and young people?

The most important thing is to talk about it. It is important to make the rules of conduct your own and make it clear to yourself that we are adhering to the rules of conduct in order to cope with the pandemic together. I also advise maintaining as many everyday structures as possible: getting dressed in the morning and having breakfast, introducing fixed times for lunch breaks and maintaining social contacts - for example by taking walks. Maybe it helps sometimes not to follow the Corona news and to worry more about the topics of your own everyday life. It is important to give room to confidence: With the vaccinations it becomes foreseeable that at some point we will be able to get the whole thing over with. It's not like it was in the beginning, when we thought it could take several years before we all got vaccinations. You have to keep reminding yourself of this positive prospect.
For parents, we have created a website www.familienunterdruck.de, on which we give tips in short 50-second videos on how to cope better with everyday life with Corona. These are evidence-based parenting tips, such as that parents should also think of themselves. Common times within everyday family life are important: Cooking together, playing games or something else that the family like to do together. It also helps if we show understanding that one has a camp fever.

It is important to give room to confidence: With the vaccinations it becomes foreseeable that at some point we will be able to get the whole thing over with

Prof. Dr. Silvia Schneider

And how can, for example, caregivers such as teachers support this?

It is enriching for teachers to keep in contact with the students despite the homeschooling - also apart from the subject matter. And of course the teachers have to take care of themselves. In contact with the students, it is important to create predictability. Because predictability is something extremely important for all children: it conveys security. And when I feel safe, I can develop better, I can concentrate better on learning.

When parents notice that the burden is too great and the children change? Who can you reach out to?

There are local advice centers everywhere: family advice centers or parenting advice centers. There are tips online, such as on our website psychologische-coronahilfe.de: When should I start worrying if the youngsters can't get out of bed? You can also contact a psychotherapist for a consultation if you have the feeling that the child is developing psychological problems. The first step is to seek a conversation for assistance. For children and young people there is also the number against sorrow that you can call.