Childhood has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Carefree playdates, team sports, and school have been off the table or strictly online for many of the world's 2.2 billion children, replaced by isolation, boredom, family stress, and worry. What will be the consequences?
Children have weathered disasters before, so researchers know plenty about the risks as well as the potential for recovery. For example, after flooding in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, killed 125 people in 1972 and left more than 4,000 homeless, children suffered anxiety. Boys became "belligerent." Young kids who'd been toilet-trained started having accidents again. The problems were worse if several family members and friends had died, or if the family atmosphere was gloomy, violent, or unsupportive. But after 17 years had passed, the researchers studying these children found that most of them had recovered.
In the current pandemic, researchers have already observed a rise in symptoms of depression among kids, and a worsening of symptoms in children and teens who already had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ann Masten, a developmental psychologist who studies resilience at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, worries about children whose pandemic experience is compounded by other adversities such as poverty. But on the whole, she says, there's reason to be optimistic about children's long-term resilience. Parents can help by building a reassuring — and fun — environment at home.
Masten and colleagues wrote about resilience in the 2021 Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You work in a field called "resilience science." What does that mean, and where did it come from?
Resilience science is about how people — or families or communities or economies — adapt to challenges. It emerged around 1970, after World War II brought attention to the ways children are affected by traumas: concentration camps in the Holocaust, for example, or evacuations in the U.K. Researchers, some of whom experienced the war when they were young, were trying to figure out what protects people from trauma or allows them to recover, so we could learn how to help others.
We study different adversities, ranging from natural disasters to parents with mental health problems, to abuse or divorce — all kinds of challenges. I'm interested in how adversity affects development of social, emotional, and learning skills, and impacts lifelong well-being. For example, how are kids getting along with other kids? Are they following the rules of the classroom and home, are they showing good academic achievement? Ultimately, we study outcomes most parents would hope for their children: to find their place in society and be happy.
What does this kind of research tell us about resilience?
There are an awful lot of kids who overcome risk and adversity and develop and do well. Years ago, I formulated what I call the shortlist: the resilience factors that kept coming up in studies of children and youth in many different situations.
Having close relationships with caring, competent adults is always at the top of the list. In addition, children do better when they have good planning and thinking skills, but also when they believe in themselves, feel a sense of belonging, and are motivated to achieve. As children get older, having a sense of purpose and meaning in life is an important protective factor. Kids with several of these factors, nurtured by resilient families and schools, are in a strong position to overcome adversity.
During the COVID-19 crisis, what are your main concerns for children?
Education: I have a 6-year-old grandchild, and she is just not motivated by distance learning. We already have marked disparities in this country, and there are so many disadvantaged children who are having trouble with distance learning, or aren't showing up. We know that children who are disadvantaged lose ground in the summer. What we're in the midst of now looks like it's going to be the equivalent of an 18-month summer. On the whole, our society will suffer from a loss of academic capital: There might be a lower rate of high school graduation and college education in this generation.
Isolation: The children I worry most about are kids who are in danger or hungry because of that isolation. School is one of the most important contexts in which we monitor children, and make sure they're getting enough to eat, that nobody's harming them. Detection of child abuse and neglect goes down when everybody's isolated.
Family impacts: I'm talking about the working single parents, for example, or families who've been financially devastated by losing a small business. The kids are there, experiencing the emotions and despair. This has an indirect but crucial effect on child development.
In the face of such adversity, can we expect kids to be resilient?
There's reason to be optimistic. Research has shown us there's tremendous recovery over time, once things get to a new normal. As activities like school and sports are restored, they can be powerful contributors to recovery.
What can parents do now to promote resilience in their kids?
Listen to kids. Answer questions as honestly as you can, but in an age-appropriate and reassuring way.
Maintain daily routines. Make sure there are opportunities to play: board games, puzzles, exercising together outside. And also, figure out ways to carry on with special occasions and celebrations, to the degree that that's feasible. All these actions provide a sense that things are OK.
One of the most powerful protective factors in human life is hope, so another important one is to make plans for what you want to do when the pandemic ends.
But one of the most important things parents can do is remember that they are the bedrock. They are providing a sense of belonging and security, and teaching by their own behavior and example. Make sure you're taking care of your own health and well-being.
Along those lines, you coined the use of the term "surge capacity" in resilience. How does that apply in the current crisis?
In disaster research, surge capacity is about having the resources ready to go. For example if a hurricane arrives, do you have the extra capacity to get emergency services out there?
I simply observed that people, including parents and teachers, also have surge capacity. We can often mobilize extra energy. Parents do this all the time, for example by stepping up their game when their kids are sick.
But they can't do it indefinitely, at a high rate. That's when people begin to feel fatigued and depleted. There are a lot of worn-out parents out there, who can't afford to hire a teacher or nanny.
Many parents are concerned about screen time. How can they manage that when we live our whole lives on screens?
It's so ironic we are causing children to have loads more screen time, after all the warnings about too much screen time.
On the one hand, thank goodness there are screens for learning, and for socializing, and for entertaining bored children so their parents can do some work. Staying in touch with other kids online can mitigate the isolation to some degree. And media can be put to good use: One of our great international treasures is the Sesame Workshop, and they've done some really good pieces on COVID for kids.
On the other hand, there's very good evidence, for example from after 9/11 or the Challenger explosion, that you can be traumatized by media exposure. And it's important that kids be active and get outside, and that families interact.
I think of it in terms of a tradeoff. It's about the value of what you're doing with screen time. If you're doing screen time instead of going outside on a family walk or something, that's probably not a good idea.
What are resilience scientists doing right now?
There are many projects going on about responses to COVID-19. For example, some people are studying the effects of online learning and mental health, or the transition to telehealth. There's a really interesting group called COVGEN that is studying the COVID generation — children conceived, carried, and born during this time around the world.
I think we're really going to learn from studies that were already going on before the pandemic, following children over time. With isolated disasters, often you don't have data on the people before the disaster happened; this time, we do. The investigators have added measures about the stress and impact of the pandemic on those children and families.
There's going to be an amazing amount of research that's going to teach us a lot.
What have we learned already?
We usually have takeaway lessons from major disasters, and from this one, I hope we learn that we've under-invested in children and families for a long time. For example, many schools don't have enough space or great ventilation. And even before the pandemic, teachers were burned out, overloaded with large classes and workloads. We didn't have educational surge capacity, we didn't provide much support to parents, and now we're hanging on by our fingernails. We need to invest in the systems, buildings, and personnel that support kids and families and education.
Learn more about the effects of the pandemic on the developing child: Join Ann Masten and Amber Dance in conversation at a free online event. Register here.