With many months of the coronavirus crisis behind us and still more uncertainty and stress ahead, life is tough right now for kids of all ages. Many parents — seeing their children experiencing anxiety, sadness and behavior challenges — are wondering how all of this will affect kids in the long term. Can children be traumatized by the coronavirus crisis, and if they are, how will you know?
While this situation is difficult for everyone, the good news is that kids are resilient — and parents can help foster that resilience. Even though the coronavirus crisis is stressful and could lead to long-term struggles for some kids, what you do now can make a big difference down the road. Here are the facts on stress, trauma and resilience, plus strategies for helping kids bounce back and knowing when to seek professional support.
What is trauma?
To understand how the coronavirus crisis might affect your child, it’s helpful to know what exactly trauma is — and what it isn’t.
“A traumatic event happens when someone is physically threatened or they witness that happening to someone else,” says Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “There is physical harm and danger involved in a true traumatic event.” Examples of potentially traumatic events include serious accidents, natural disasters and experiencing violence. Long-term stress like ongoing neglect, abuse or discrimination can also be traumatic.
However, it’s important to note that the event itself doesn’t define whether or not something is traumatic. Trauma is really about the individual’s reaction to the upsetting event. Just because a child goes through something that could be traumatic, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be traumatized.
“Two kids might be the same car accident, and one might experience it as trauma while the other doesn’t,” says Dr. Howard. “It really depends on the child’s interpretation of the threat. One child could feel like they almost died, while another might say, ‘Wow, it was wild that we spun around’ and then just move on.”
There’s no easy way to predict if a particular child will be traumatized. “For a lot of people, the pandemic is certainly a significant stressor but not necessarily a trauma,” says Dr. Howard. “And then for some people, it is a true traumatic event.”
Children who have gone through the death or hospitalization of a loved one due to COVID, or who have been very sick themselves, may experience those events as traumatic. Kids who have been quarantined in a violent or abusive situation are also at high risk for trauma right now.
If your child hasn’t gone through any of those especially stressful experiences during the crisis, they’re less likely to show signs of trauma.
That said, the stress that children have been experiencing over the past few months might have other significant consequences that don’t meet the clinical definition of trauma. This is where the idea of adjustment comes in.
Trauma vs. adjustment disorders
Sometimes, an event or situation that isn’t an immediate physical threat can still trigger emotional or behavioral changes in a child. When a child has trouble adapting to a new stressor in this way, it’s often called an adjustment disorder.
Stressful life events like a divorce or a move to a new home can sometimes cause adjustment disorders in kids. It’s not the same as experiencing a traumatic event because the child isn’t in danger, but it can still lead to challenges like anxiety, depression or disruptive behavior.
So while the coronavirus crisis may not exactly be traumatic for many kids, it can still lead to issues with adjustment. “There’s chronic loss happening right now,” says Dr. Howard. “So much of what kids have lost recently — the end of the school year, celebrations, camp — is related to real developmental milestones. These things might seem like niceties to parents, but they really matter to kids.”
As parents, we can’t completely protect our children from the stress of this situation, but there are strategies we can use to support their mental health — now and as the challenges continue.
- Adjust your expectations. “It’s normal to not be yourself when so much is taken away from you,” says Dr. Howard. “A lot of kids won’t bounce back entirely until the crisis has passed.”
- Empathize with their feelings. Clearly validating your child’s emotions can make a big difference, even when you can’t solve the problem. You might say, “It seems like you’re really sad about how this summer is looking. I know how much camp means to you.” Give your child space to talk about what’s upsetting them, and don’t rush to fix their difficult emotions.
- Take a step back. Howard recommends identifying a couple of big developmental milestones that are really important for your child right now. For example, this could be completing tasks independently or being more respectful of siblings — anything that your child needs to master as they continue growing and learning.
- Find opportunities for practice. Once you know what areas of growth to prioritize, see if you can find small ways for your child to work on these skills. Maybe it’s rewarding cooperative play between siblings, working up to 20 minutes of reading independently or practicing doing chores without help.
- Don’t sweat the rest. Right now, keeping up with these major skills is plenty for most kids and families to deal with. “Resilience means putting one foot in front of the other and meeting your developmental milestones,” says Dr. Howard. It doesn’t mean learning new languages and reorganizing your whole house, and it doesn’t mean that your kids need to be doing everything you might have expected before the coronavirus crisis. Letting go of the idea that everyone should be on their best behavior can make things a little easier on you and your kids alike.
How do I know if my child needs help?
Whether your child has experienced a traumatic event or is showing signs of an adjustment disorder, it might make sense to seek professional help.
When it comes to trauma, you can be on lookout for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some common signs of PTSD include being constantly on guard for danger, being preoccupied with thoughts of the traumatic event and persistent extreme emotions (or lack of emotions) that linger long after the event.
With adjustment disorders, the big difference is that kids generally don’t show exaggerated signs of fear. Instead of being jumpy or fearful, your child might experience persistent anxiety, sadness, restlessness or irritability.
Whether or not clinical trauma is involved, the main thing is to look out for significant changes in your child’s feelings or behavior that don’t go away over time. “If a child is withdrawn from the family or has stopped caring about interests and activities that they used to enjoy, those are red flags of something going on,” says Dr. Howard. “It could be adjustment or it could be trauma.”
If you do think your child would benefit from mental health support, Dr. Howard recommends looking for a provider who offers trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). TF-CBT is an evidence-based treatment designed especially for children and teenagers and it can generally be provided effectively via telehealth, so your child can get treatment while following social distancing guidelines.