COVID-19 has taken a toll on the development and social skills of children, but it’s too early to determine whether kids will have long-term mental health problems, experts told Newsday.
One thing that is clear more than a year after the pandemic closed schools, replaced classrooms with remote learning and separated children from their friends and teachers: The impact is highly individual to each child, said Shari Lurie, senior director of clinical services for South Shore Child Guidance Center in Freeport and Epic Long Island in East Meadow. The agencies, whose services include children’s therapy, saw increases of 20% to 50% in parents seeking help for their kids during the pandemic, and hired or contracted with several new therapists, she said.
"The kids are really suffering from being so isolated," Lurie said. "I think they’re feeling lonely, which leads to depression. There are kids missing out on big milestones that mean a lot to them — graduations, confirmation and all the major events, not seeing their grandparents and extended family. There’s a loss from not having the richness of those relationships on a regular basis."
Kids also may be scared that the coronavirus will make them or someone they’re close to sick, or they may be devastated by the death of a parent, grandparent or other loved one, Lurie said.
It helps that many children returned to school in-person and have resumed some of their "normal routine," but even if on the surface a child seems happy, there may be unresolved issues, she said.
National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins told a congressional committee on Tuesday that there are "a lot of unanswered questions" about how the pandemic affects kids emotionally, and he said the National Institute of Mental Health is soliciting grant applications "to look specifically at the mental health consequences of COVID-19 for children."
Isolation and anxiety
Chase Lordi, 12, felt isolated and down last spring because he couldn’t play with other kids.
"It was really tough at first because I’ve never been away from my friends for that long and not been able to see them in person," the East Norwich boy said.
Chase returned to in-person classes at James H. Vernon School in East Norwich in September, and now "I’m right back where I was. I'm really happy now that everything is getting better and I’m not as nervous about COVID anymore."
The school has created events to try to lift kids' spirits during the pandemic, said Principal Valerie Vacchio — including a recent one during which Chase and other students used chalk to draw positive symbols and messages such as "It's going to be OK" and "You are amazing."
School psychologist Allison Mueller said she's counseled many kids at Vernon who have been sad they couldn’t see their friends and engage in sports, scouting and other group activities that they enjoyed.
Jaclyn Allgier, a third grade special education teacher at Vernon, said some of her students had "a grave concern" their loved ones would contract the virus. Two had family members battling the disease, she said.
"There was a lot of ‘I’m feeling sad, I’m worried about my dad,’" she said.
Clare Murcott, 11, of East Norwich, said that during the first few months of the pandemic, "I was afraid to leave my house," and she was fearful that her parents, younger sister and relatives would get sick.
"Now I feel better about it because I know they have the vaccine and a lot of adults are getting the vaccine," she said. "I feel safer now."
The concern for children's well-being extends to the very young. A survey released in October by the Manhattan-based Jed Foundation, a teen and young adult emotional-health nonprofit, found that 31% of parents of children ages 2 to 18 said their kids’ mental health was worse than before the pandemic.
Shenic Dick, 28, of Hempstead, is concerned that her son Mason, who is almost 3, is less social than he should be because he missed preschool all year.
He played with his two cousins in their shared home and backyard, but it wasn’t until last month that he began playing with other kids in a soccer program in East Meadow’s Eisenhower Park and at the park playground, Dick said.
She said she put him in soccer so he could "interact with other children and start to build his social skills." Mason sometimes will play if other kids come up to him but won’t initiate play, she said.
Dick is enrolling him in preschool in September and isn’t worried about a long-term effect on his social development.
"He is still pretty young, so I do feel he’ll be able to catch up," she said.
Lurie said that for some preschool children who have had little in-person contact with other kids for more than a year, "at first it will be a struggle" to socialize, but she doesn’t foresee lasting problems.
"I think they can catch up," she said. "I think they’ll be resilient in that way, in terms of learning how to share, how to communicate and get along with others. I don’t think it will be a long-term effect."
The impact on adolescents
Amanda Fludd, a social worker in Lynbrook, said she’s seen more of an effect on adolescents than on younger children.
"Developmentally, adolescents at that time are learning from each other, and that requires you to be physically around people," she said.
William Sanderson, a psychology professor at Hofstra University, said adolescents "tend to be much more social" than younger children, so social isolation can be "particularly difficult."
"Peers are much more important to adolescents in their development, in their pleasure and in their activities and their attitudes," he said.
Adolescence is a transition between childhood and adulthood, and the pandemic has helped stymie that transition, he said.
"Adolescents are establishing independence and all of a sudden they’re under their parents’ thumbs, so to speak, because they can’t leave the house," he said.
Donna Altonji, a social worker and program director at the Huntington-based Family Service League’s Mastic Beach center, said that can cause tension.
"When you’re stuck in the house and you can’t leave and you’re not around the kids who you get your identity from, that can have a lasting effect on kids, and it can make them at times depressed, at times angry and very confused," she said.
For others, a respite
The pandemic was a temporary respite for kids who are socially anxious or were bullied, Fludd said.
She said some kids she was counseling pre-COVID-19 "didn’t need therapy anymore. Being at home, the social pressure was gone and the anxiety level dropped significantly."
But those children eventually will need to learn to navigate relationships, and "for them, it will be like starting over" when they return to in-person learning, Fludd said.
Some children who lost a loved one to COVID-19 have had an especially rough time, Altonji said. "It can make them feel like their whole world is falling apart," she said. "Nothing is as safe as it was before." A colleague is counseling a young girl who was traumatized after her mother and grandfather died of the disease, she said.
In the coming months, Lurie advised parents to look out for changes in their kids and "validate their fears and their concerns" by listening carefully and seeking outside help if needed.
"It’s difficult to predict who will be most vulnerable to long-term mental health issues," she said. "That’s why we need to watch out for them, because we just don’t know."
TO GET HELP
Nassau County has a 24/7 crisis hotline that children or parents can call: 516-227-TALK.
In Suffolk County, Response Crisis Center has a 24/7 hotline that is open to all: 631-751-7500. For help in Spanish, call 631-751-7423 from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday.
The New York State Office of Mental Health operates the federally funded NY Project Hope hotline, which was established to help New Yorkers cope with COVID-19. Call 844-863-9314 between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. every day.
To get counseling by text or chat, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed a “COVID-19 parental resources kit”: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/parental-resource-kit