As children return to classrooms and playgrounds, and maybe soon to summer camp, we must not forget that many are still feeling the effects of the social isolation they experienced when school went virtual last year. Learning is still remote for many kids, who continue to be cut off from treasured spaces that nurture positive, developing relationships, caring about others, thinking critically and avoiding negative behaviors.
Even though the physical settings might be restored, many children continue to feel an undermined sense of security. Some will be resilient and bounce back. Others will need extra support from parents and adults in their community.
Mental health workers are seeing young people in their second decade of life who are anxious and depressed. These include both kids who were struggling with their mental health before the pandemic and those who were stellar students with rich social lives who seem to have fallen off the coronavirus cliff.
The unforeseen loss of routine is especially impactful on young folks like these for whom connecting with peers is so integral to their daily life experience. Now, and since the onset of the pandemic, it’s as if the adolescent ecosystem has suddenly been deprived of oxygen and light.
For far too many young people, this is a painful time when an essential aspect of their lives has been suddenly threatened, resulting in lost connections, isolation and longing. This is a lonely time in which the grief they experience is unacknowledged and unsupported by any social ritual, a demoralizing reality that may lead to days and nights of anxiety, desperation and, for some, deep depression and dark thoughts about whether life is worth living even one more day.
Although this may be a time to draw closer to one’s family, the notion of increasing togetherness with parents at the precise time in one’s life that a young person is striving to become more independent can create an existential crisis. Parental support should include encouraging social connection outside the family, either virtually or in safe face-to-face settings. This does not suggest pushing away one’s child, but rather empathizing with the healthy need for some separation and peer connection. Groups of peers can create the sparks necessary to ignite the warm fires of intimacy that will help see many a young person through this public health disaster.
Adults need to understand the uncertainty and shakiness that kids might be feeling. Reinforce to them that you are there for them, that we all went through a very difficult time and there will be more tough times ahead in life, but that you will always stand by their side.
What we know is that young people who feel connected are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as self-harm, violence, early sexual activity or suicidal actions. As my friend and colleague Dr. Ariel Botta, a group worker at Boston Children’s Hospital, advised: “Healthy human development and adjustment require both connection and solitude. At this point in history, there is plenty of isolation and a dire shortage of connection.”
The importance of attachment and connection carries on throughout a child’s life and impacts relationships as they move into adulthood. The support you give them is not just for now — it’s forever.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Marko Geber