The following piece was originally published on Alexandra Harrison’s blog entitled Supporting Child Caregivers in April 2020, which can be found here.
We have talked about infants and young children in the time of COVID. It is important now to talk about the experience of school children and adolescents. These kids have some of the same problems we have discussed in relation to younger children, and they have some different problems. The particular challenges faced by older children include school and academic work, friendships, screens, and obstacles to independence. I will tackle them one at a time.
School has become transformed from a classroom full of peers and a teacher to a computer screen. For some children who struggle with social anxiety, staying home can be a welcome relief. For most, the absence of the structure of the classroom and peer companionship is a terrible loss. The additional burden put on parents to supervise remote learning or even to create remote learning opportunities for their children can be onerous, especially if they also are working from home. Children who struggle initiating tasks may find they have more difficulty than ever when there is no teacher to help them get going. Children may misapprehend directions and find themselves lost without a teacher they can ask for clarification. The temptation for older children to escape into video games or social media when they are supposed to be doing homework may be even greater. Even when schools offer a remote learning program, it is hardly a substitute for the usual school curriculum and the activities of the school day. There is no recess, no playground time. The rhythm of the day has changed.
In addition some preteens and teens may have to contend with application to secondary schools and university. This is a huge anxiety since the schools themselves are thrown into a state of disorganization, and their communications may be confusing. The preparatory activities offered to children to help them make a transition to the new school are disrupted. There is no chance to visit the schools, to tour the campuses. The matriculation of some children may suddenly be put on hold as their parents struggle with the decrease in family income caused by the shutdown. There is uncertainty about whether the schools will begin the school year in September!
Screens are hard to control during the “family lockdown”, even more than usual. Turning off the game is always hard, because as I will remind you, transitions require you to undo one state of organization and tolerate temporarily a state of disorganization before you achieve a new state of organization. For example, a state of highly focused attention on the game followed by the less enjoyable and relatively unstructured activity of the family dinner table or going to bed is a huge challenge for most kids, and for kids with organizational and regulatory problems it can seem impossible. Videogames are “external regulators” that offer the player a wide range of affect and arousal state without the player having to do the regulating. Many individuals cannot stay organized and engaged through that range of affective experience, especially in adolescence. Some children have to shut down high intensity states in order to stay calm, but that can give them a feeling of boredom, even depression. The videogames have highs that are regulated by the computer (even though the frustration of losing a game can cause meltdowns!) For that reason in addition to the usual difficulty leaving something you are enjoying, kids have a hard time turning off the game to rejoin life in the family.
Joining the family—especially in adolescence—can in itself be hard. It is common knowledge that teenagers, at least in Western culture, face the developmental task of attenuating their dependent bond to their parents and establishing their independence. One of the major methods of achieving this goal is through connecting with and identifying with peers. When they are forced to stay home with their families and lose contact with their friends, this vital source of learning and of protection from the unwelcome pull of dependency is gone. Adolescents and even younger children can regress in their behavior and fight against the perceived control of their parents.
Children learn from peers—about how to collaborate, how to communicate, how to take turns, how to share. Friendships play a greater role in the development of an individual than is typically recognized by psychological theories. Friendships often complement what a child’s family can give him– values not available in the child’s family, sometimes offering comfort when the child’s family cannot. I have often thought that the nurturing many people experience in their childhood friendships plays an important role in the adult the child will become.
How can families deal with the enforced togetherness of these days of crisis? I would suggest five ideas—exercise, lower expectations, make greater comfort, encourage contact with friends, and create a “higher level togetherness”.
- Exercise is very hard to do inside, but it is possible. If you can get your kids to go on a bike ride or walk with you that is terrific. Indoor exercise may be accomplished by engaging screens—maybe an added inducement—in exercise programs. Yoga and meditation are excellent, but it can be hard to get older children in this culture to do it, especially without a group of peers doing it together.
- By lower expectations, I mean try to accept a lower level of compliance with parental demands and a lower level of academic accomplishment than you might otherwise expect.
- Strongly encourage remote contact with friends. There are games that younger kids can play remotely—some lego games, Bingo, guessing games, scavenger hunts, etc. I have included some online resources below. Adolescents don’t need you to plan their time with friends, but they need you to allow more of it.
- I would also emphasize comfort—make the kids’ favorite foods, allow more t.v. and movies (and make popcorn!)
- Finally, I suggest that parents come up with some ideas about what the family can do together that is more than entertainment, something that is constructive, something to remember. The family might create a family blog, a you tube channel, make a project to help others. This activity can teach family values. Parents have to go all in to make this work. They have to take the time and expend the energy. They have to begin by giving the kids choices—would you like to make a family blog, would you like to sew masks, write emails to first responders in your town, design online games for younger children, or anything the kids can think up. The kids may not catch on to the idea right away. Parents have to hang in there. If one child refuses to contribute, for example, the parents could make a contribution for him (try to contribute something that relates to this particular child such as a paragraph in the blog post about something he did, or creating a game for little kids related to an interest of his such as cars or mazes. Then over time, he may come around. Again, it is important to keep expectations low. Don’t fall in love with the project and get mad if the kids don’t cooperate. Remember, this is a family enterprise. If they don’t like it, go back to the drawing board and see if you can negotiate something else. If that doesn’t work, just keep at it. Let that child know that he is part of the family and if he can’t contribute actively right now, you will still keep him in mind. It may be that the project outlasts the pandemic. That would be a good thing.
Alexandra Murray Harrison, M.D. is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute in Adult and Child and Adolescent Psychoanalysis, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School at the Cambridge Health Alliance, and on the Faculty of the Infant-Parent Mental Health Post Graduate Certificate Program at University of Massachusetts Boston. Dr. Harrison has a private practice in both adult and child psychoanalysis and psychiatry. In the context of visits to orphanages in Central America and India, Dr. Harrison has developed a model for mental health professionals in developed countries to volunteer their consultation services to caregivers of children in care in developing countries in the context of a long term relationship with episodic visits and regular skype and video contact.
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