This is the second post in a three-part series on the effects of COVID on families. You can read Part 1 here.
The Effects of COVID on Children
While the whole world tries to navigate through this new landscape, some troubling consequences of the virus – the lockdowns, the constant media streams and the hygiene protocols – begin to crop up. With enforced isolation, children are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. The abrupt change in their normal lifestyle has an effect on their mental and physical health. Limitations and restrictions put in place for playgrounds, community centres, places of worship, schools and long-term care homes, put a stop to some (if not all) activities and family outings.
Extended home confinement due to COVID-19 causes a host of issues. Research suggests that when kids are not in school, they are less physically active, they have poorer sleep and spend way more time in front of the screens. We, as parents, know this; we don’t need a study to tell us this. When March Break was upon us, we all let our kids sleep in and enjoy the lazier days with no rushing in their routine. Then, the weekend before school started, we began sending them off to bed earlier, in preparation for their new routine. When you have what seems like a never-ending summer break and with no plan to return in sight, it can be destabilizing. Back then, no one knew when kids were going back to school (or if they even were going back to school), nor whether recreational programs or religious services would be reinstated. What we were missing was a clear END, so that we could move on with our daily routines. After all, structure breeds contentment, security and a stable state of mind, especially in kids.
A higher incidence of sibling aggression has been noted in family environments that are experiencing negative circumstances such as financial stress and chaos within the household (such as no regular routine, constant exposure to the TV or screens). When there are higher levels of negativity in the home, conflict between siblings tends to soar; this is often because the child is imitating the hostility and interactions that they see from (and between) their parents. When there is home confinement, with the chance of extensions in the future, maintaining harmony between siblings is essential, not only for a more peaceful home environment but also for positive child development. Healthy sibling relationships allow children to better cope if there are psychological distress and marital issues within the home.
The Effects of Wearing a Mask
Mask-wearing is a fact of life right now. But how does wearing a mask, or seeing people in masks, affect the psyches of very young children? After all, kids need to see faces and expressions to learn to read emotions and social cues. It is emotional communication that children learn as small babies, and it teaches them to interpret if a situation is positive (happy, excited, proud) or negative (sad, scary, threatening) – especially if it’s a totally new situation. So when the world is expressionless, how do children know if the face behind the mask is compassionate or kind?
As children return to school, studies are now being conducted to evaluate the effects of masks on children in a classroom setting. Naturally, parents are worried. In Ontario, parents do have the option of full-time virtual learning at home or in-person education. Battles are brewing as parents are unsure of the best route to take; some disagree with the choices that they have been given or feel they have no choice at all, especially if there’s an at-risk family member at home. This is an ongoing issue, but we are all hoping our kids will be alright, no matter what we choose.
Effects on Teenagers
Globally, one of the leading causes of illness among adolescents is depression. Sadly, one in six kids who are experiencing depression are between the ages of 10-19 years; half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age and can go undetected for years. Add COVID-19 to the mix and we’ve got a recipe for disaster.
I feel for the elementary seniors, high school seniors, and university graduates who had to miss out on a huge landmark in their educational career. Graduating gives students a sense of accomplishment and pride, and to have that moment taken away is heartbreaking. It’s a loss that is keenly felt and was one of many disappointments they experienced due to COVID-19. School closures, the loss of part-time jobs and the restriction of groups have all greatly impacted the socialization of teenagers. The already anxious teen working through issues by attending school and joining groups is forced back into their shell. The popular, involved-in-everything student loses their role as a student leader and falls into depression – missing peers, friends and other social interactions. The disappointment of missing out is enough to send any teenager into a depression. Building and nurturing friendships are so important to the development of teenagers; to be told to physically distance and isolate from them can lead to feelings of anxiety, frustration, anger and resentment.
Along with school closures, missing out on important social events, and interactions with peers and teachers, teens also had to navigate learning from home, which presented other challenges. Some families did not have the technology to support online learning; while others failed to understand the material because they lost access to one-on-one time with teachers. Many had no choice but to simply cope, with teachers woefully unprepared to teach online. Having both parents at home, whether as a work-from-home parent, or unemployed, and with possibly younger siblings running about, concentration levels dropped as well.
Notoriously, a healthy teenagers’ sense of mortality pretty much doesn’t exist, but this pandemic has forced them to realize that maybe they aren’t immune to health challenges, and that alone can be scary. The constant stream of numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, hygiene protocols, the banning of embracing or visiting elderly family members, and new fears developing (such as loved ones becoming sick) and family economics are all new stressors that young people are facing right now.
While walking the line between child and adult, teenagers need special care during the pandemic. They can be a source of major help within the household, or they can become a very heavy burden. It’s a matter of how parents – and the family as a whole – cope that the teen will rely on.
Effects on the Family
The long-term effects of the pandemic upon the family are not yet known, but there is certainly evidence of short-term effects. The core of the family has been shaken due to changes implemented by the government in response to COVID-19. Many parents have been laid off from their jobs and others have had to work from home in order to keep business moving.
In families where a member is deemed an essential worker, there is added stress as they take extra measures to keep themselves and everyone around them safe from exposure. While many parents are willing to accept the challenge to help their children with online learning, many of us are not equipped or have the capacity (or patience!) to deal with actual home-schooling. The added pressure to secure a good education for their children during the pandemic is another stressor on an already changing and shifting family dynamic.
The disruption in financial security, the intensifying weight of caregiving, and lockdowns in our homes all contribute to negativity at home. Our well-being as parents and primary caregivers is put at risk. The new, daily stressors of life – along with taking care of others – all detract from our own self-care. Being able to calm and care for ourselves allows us to become mentally stronger and recover from fatigue, low mood, and boosts inspiration and confidence in our abilities. But when we’re bombarded with COVID-19 issues constantly – whether worrying about elderly parents or a spouse working on the front line, the stress doesn’t ease and we are constantly on the lookout for the next danger.
COVID-19 is responsible for disrupting family well-being by interrupting three essential processes that a family needs to achieve cohesive resilience:
When the three processes of family harmony are interrupted the result is a weakened family unit. In the context of COVID-19, Communication (which encompasses emotional sharing, collaborative problem-solving, clear information and family coping) is interrupted; this was especially so in the earlier days of the pandemic. Unclear information was being distributed through media channels, resulting in a lot of confusion and fear for families.
While emotional sharing was very prevalent when we expressed our concerns about the virus, there was no clear way to problem-solve and coping mechanisms were not put into play, other than “getting through it”. If there was a lack of strong family leadership, this breakdown in communication could have led to fear, panic and additional worry. But, with a good strong lead, a family’s communication process would have enabled them to sit down and express their concerns, with an admission that the situation was new and evolving. In the early days of the pandemic, it was important to come together to discuss new information as it came up. We stayed home, talked through our fears, eased each other’s nerves and read CREDIBLE information on the virus (instead of scouring Instagram and Facebook for help). Actions such as this promoted calm within the family and encouraged the deployment of duties amongst every member to help carry on together, even though it felt like society was collapsing outside our doors.
Organization is essential within any family, pandemic or not. In an organizational framework, a family is able to adapt to rapidly changing situations without breaking the familial unit. Nurturing connections helps to create unity, especially during a time of lockdowns and social distancing. Within the organizational structure, there are three other processes that are needed for a healthy functioning family: rituals, routines and rules. COVID-19 disrupted all three.
All of our routines were drastically altered, rules were broken and new ones implemented within families and within society to adapt to COVID-19; and rituals, which are responsible for meaning and significance in one’s life, and serve to strengthen a family, were also disrupted. But, with the reopening of places of worship and expansion of our family bubbles, rituals are slowly returning.
Having a belief system within a family is a powerful tool to overcome adversity and in trying to make sense of life and all of its tragedies. Beliefs are expressed through our gatherings and holidays. However, this year, we have had to miss birthday parties, graduations, Easter, Passover, Ramadan, marriages, funerals and births. With no way of marking these milestones, we start to feel a disconnect with family and friends, and we start to grieve for the old “normal.” Life has changed, so we try to create a new normal by utilizing rituals during the pandemic. Those Sunday family dinners hold more meaning now, as we hug our loved ones and think about the ones we can’t be with. Meaningful family rituals nurture and support family resilience, especially when a family member is infected.
Close family relationships can help weather the storm. If you are lucky enough to be in contact with them, extended family and friends can also provide a protective benefit. Social support from family and friends has been shown to help caregivers manage stress, and this positive effect trickles down to parenting styles.
Making sense of disasters is where a strong belief system comes in. The thought that “things happen for a reason” can help families adapt to dire situations. They start to apply wellness rituals into the family routine, as an opportunity for better physical and mental health. Praying and meditation provide a protective effect on spirits. Changing from “why is this happening to me?” to “We’re all in this together” can be a beneficial shift in thinking, and promotes togetherness and camaraderie.
Thinking that COVID-19 is not the fault of any one person, that it is time-limited and manageable, along with resisting worst-case scenarios in your head, and minimizing catastrophic thinking, will further help families cope with the pandemic.
You can find all of the resources and references for this article here.
Rebecca Ramdeholl is a freelance writer and author of The Little Book of Ass-Kickers: 5 Ways to Get Your Health Back on Track Naturally. She directs a lot of her focus on writing about health and wellness (specifically for women aged 35+), along with nutrition, and mental health. Her niche writing includes topics on prepping and homesteading for newbies, as well as website content creation for small, online businesses. You can find her at The Poe Scribe.