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What happened to children’s emotional health in the pandemic?

The American Family Survey in 2021 asked parents about mental, physical, social and emotional health. Here’s what we learned

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Illustration by Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

The pandemic put some kids behind on developing the social-emotional tools they’ll need for the rest of their lives. Social and emotional health plays a crucial role in forming strong relationships and the ability to manage one’s emotions.

Children fared worse in emotional and social health during the pandemic than they did in mental and physical health, according to parents who took the 2021 American Family Survey. Twenty-two percent of parents said their child’s emotional health got worse, compared to 15% who said it improved. That’s slightly less than the 24% who said social health got worse.

Of children’s physical health, 16% of parents said it improved, compared to 14% who said it got worse. Slightly more said mental health got worse (18%) compared to the 15% who said it got better.

The 2021 American Family Survey is a collaboration between Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. The nationally representative poll, conducted by YouGov in late June and early July 2021, included 3,000 U.S. adults and had a margin of error of 2%. This was its seventh year.

Before the pandemic, kids played with each other on school campuses, playgrounds and at their friend’s homes, said Laurie Singer, a marriage and family therapist in Camarillo, California. In March 2020, the world changed for children socially and emotionally as they had to learn to social distance and wear masks.

While those health and safety measures helped stop COVID-19 spread, they were very hard on social and emotional development, Singer said.

“The social distancing created isolation and the wearing of masks ended the probability of children learning to read nonverbal body language on the faces of others,” such as smiles or frowns, she said.

Harder for some kids

Years before the pandemic started, parents, teachers, mental health experts and others were seeing a dramatic increase in the number of children — and particularly teens — who were exhibiting signs of mental and emotional distress. Anxiety was rampant, as the Deseret News reported in its award-winning Generation Vexed series. Then COVID-19-related changes poured gasoline on that kindling of emotional and mental distress.

“The year 2020 brought mental health issues to the forefront,” said Singer, who noted that the share of people showing signs of mental health disorders — not just children — more than tripled in the pandemic.

“I can speculate that we are only seeing the beginnings of widespread anxiety and depression, which will only increase as time goes on and children get older,” she said.

Singer said children who already had mental health concerns started to regress and their mental and emotional health got worse. Isolation, lack of social interactions, online schooling and wearing masks all created some anxiety — plus parental distress trickled down on the kids, as well, increasing the harm.

By the time children physically returned to school, some of the younger ones exhibited behavior problems, according to Singer, in part because they’d missed out on some of the early lessons in sharing and following directions that they normally would have had as part of their earliest lessons in school.

And after spending so much time with parents, some felt separation anxiety, too, she said.

Among those hardest hit were the children who had special needs, some of whom lost ground across multiple domains: social, emotional and physical health, said Singer. They had not just lost out on socialization and other lessons provided in school, but often valuable resources that were part of their individually tailored education plans.

Income differences

Parents in higher-income households were more likely to say their children’s emotional health got worse during the pandemic than those in low- and moderate-income households, the American Family Survey found.

More than a fourth of parents (25.8%) in households above $80,000 said their children’s emotional well-being had deteriorated, compared to 20.7% of those with household incomes below $40,000 and 24.1% of those whose incomes were in-between those groupings.

That doesn’t surprise Singer. “Parents of lower-income families are less likely to report mental and/or emotional health regression as a result of the pandemic lockdown,” she said. “It is possible that families of lower income are less likely to have the time to take their child to the doctor if they notice a behavior problem.”

And because children show anxiety or emotional distress differently than adults, those might not be recognized as easily, either.

Singer said a child might complain of physical symptoms like a headache or stomachache. It would likely be the doctor, absent a physical finding, who figures out the root is psychological.

“Psychological treatment would help the child gain perspective on their behavior and or physical symptoms,” she said. “The child would be taught relaxation techniques and learn to control maladaptive symptoms” of emotional distress.

Building resilience

Building emotional health is not something parents can singlehandedly do for their children, but they can certainly help the process along, said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, who offered some tips.

She said parents have to start by managing their own stress levels and take care of their own social and emotional health and relationships if they hope to help their kids do the same.

“Parent well-being is key to positive parent-child relationships,” said Schoppe-Sullivan. “Children look to parents and parents’ relationship for cues about their own safety and security.”

She said that parents can foster strong parent-child relationships by making sure they spend time with their child doing something the child enjoys and by being available and willing when older children or adolescents want to talk. During those interactions, cell phones and other distractions should be put away.

Time with friends is also really important to a child’s emotional development and parents should encourage it, Schoppe-Sullivan added. That’s another area where the pandemic put harmful pressure on mental, social and emotional health.

“Scaffold establishing and maintaining strong friendships may be needed especially for children who had fewer peer and friend interactions during the pandemic,” said Schoppe-Sullivan, who is also a board member of the Council on Contemporary Families.

She encourages parents to be willing to arrange playdates, transport the children and help facilitate spending time with other children.

Not all bad news

While both children and adults were more isolated early in the pandemic and found themselves stressed about a lot that was unfamiliar, some aspects of emotional health may have gotten a boost during that time.

Creativity grew during the pandemic lockdown, according to a study from the Paris Brain Institute published in Frontiers in Psychology, even though researchers said the pandemic triggered health or psychological difficulties.

The respondents had more time, more motivation and the need to solve a problem. While that study was in France, it speaks to a universal experience of change that likely had a similar impact in the United States. The top creative activities that grew during the pandemic included cooking, sports and dance programs, self-help programs and gardening.

Here’s where that gets interesting for emotional health: Emotion and creativity are linked. According to Medical News Today, “The two greatest factors in whether a person’s level of creativity during the lockdown rose or fell were emotional or affective change and — to a slightly lesser degree — whether the pandemic gave them more free time.”