COVID-19 combined with the on-again, off-again lockdowns are having a detrimental effect on the mental health of kids. Photos, including cover, by Marina Calo

Lockdown takes toll on kids’ mental health

  • April 22, 2021

Marina Calo has been trying to manage the online education of her five-year-old son and says it has not been easy.

While he was in school, she was able to get government funding for therapy after he was diagnosed with a mild form of autism. He was thriving with in-person learning in the Toronto Catholic education system, but while in lockdown the family does not have access to the same supports, she says. It has been painful to watch her son fall backwards after making so much progress.

“We didn’t have the therapy available, we didn’t have the school, so he basically regressed,” said Calo.

“He started having a lot of anxiety about things he never had anxiety about before. He started forgetting to use the washroom. Thankfully that came back to normal, but he’s the kind of kid that thrives in school and online doesn’t work for him.”

Calo’s story is not unfamiliar to thousands of parents. The on-again, off-again reality of school lockdowns in Ontario due to COVID-19 — the province has returned to online learning following spring break with no indication when students will return to in-person learning — has left many parents concerned for the emotional wellbeing and developmental progress of their young children.

Research backs up the problems young people are having in dealing with a world in lockdown due to the coronavirus. A study from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children revealed “a large majority of children and youth experienced harm to to their mental health” in the first COVID wave.

“Greater stress from social isolation, including both the cancellation of important events and the loss of in-person social interactions, was strongly associated with mental health deterioration.”

The study released in February also said those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experienced “the greatest deterioration in depression, irritability, attention span and hyperactivity,” noting the closure of schools as a main factor.

"I can tell now there’s new fears that he didn’t have before."

- Marina Calo

Though Calo and her husband work to create a calm and loving environment for their son, an only child, she sees how anxiety about the virus and lack of social interaction with peers have started to impact him. Being on the spectrum, having opportunities to connect with other children is particularly important for his development and cultivation of social cues.

“It has been very trying,” said Calo. “He’s a really good kid but I can tell now there’s new fears that he didn’t have before. Like if people touch his food now he’ll say, ‘You’re going to give me corona,’ and all these things. It’s very unfortunate because we don’t have support.”

Like many parents in Ontario, Calo has been critical of a provincial government they feel has not done enough to prioritize children and ensure schools can safely stay open more than a year into the pandemic. Parents are frustrated at having to turn on a dime when the government decides to shut things down, leaving them little time and options for child care.

Child psychologist Dr. Tally Bodenstein Kales regularly hears about the struggles kids are facing, particularly surrounding online learning and the increased workload on children in the older grades.

Many parents are instinctively doing the right thing by pulling the plug on online classes for young children when they feel they’ve had enough during the day, she says. Regardless of age focusing primarily on the overall wellbeing of children as opposed to the stressing out about academic progress is key to getting through these lockdowns.

“I think it’s really important to focus on the day-to-day,” said Bodenstein Kales. “I think for a lot of kids there will probably be a little bit of a lag in academic skills relative to what it would have been without interruptions but the thing about academic skills is they can always be learned. Health is number one. Sometimes actually they learn better when there’s a certain level of maturity that’s achieved. Parents tend to get really anxious about the academic stuff, but, without peace of mind, you can’t even learn.”

While the situation is challenging for a lot of families, she assures parents that for the most part children are very resilient and will adjust once a normal structure comes back into place. They will have some catching up to do both academically and socially, and curriculum will have to make adjustments for that. Kids, she says, have the ability to bounce back which should alleviate the fears of many parents.

But the stress goes beyond the kids. Lori Campbell and her husband are essential workers. She says the school lockdowns have been taking a toll on the mental health of the entire family. She works in litigation law and her husband in the environmental sector. They have had to find ways to maintain both their full-time jobs while caring for and supporting the online learning of their four-year-old who is in junior kindergarten.

Trying to get her four-year-old daughter to sit in front of a computer and stay focused is like pulling teeth.

“Half the time she’s not paying attention,” said Campbell. “She could care less. I’m snapping at her to like, come on, pay attention. Some days we just don’t do it because I shouldn’t be yelling at my kid to try to do homework. She’s four. They’re not built for this.”

Campbell says the most recent lockdown has her at the end of her rope.

“I had a meltdown in front of my boss, I’m just so stressed,” said Campbell. “I can’t do it because my work just piled up and piled up and there’s not enough time in the day. We have zero help. My parents don’t live in Toronto. (My husband) has to put in hours nights and weekends, and then my work has just been piling up. There’s no one to do it other than me because they’re my files.”

Workplaces that don’t have a lot of options for parents pose some of the biggest challenges for families at this time. Bodenstein Kales urges parents to do their best to remain emotionally calm and present for the children even while under stress. A big part of that is avoiding getting bogged down with online learning expectations.

Several parents with children in the Catholic education system report that their trust in God has been getting them through this trying time. Calo and those in her network of Catholic parents have been leaning on their faith to manage anxiety in their families.

“What do we do? We pray,” said Calo. “I pray in the morning, that’s what keeps me calm. That’s what keeps us calm as a family — our faith and teaching him not to be scared because Jesus is stronger than the virus.”

In her practice, Bodenstein Kales has seen how families with strong faith have been able to come through even the most challenging of circumstances, and says these lockdowns shouldn’t be any different.

“I actually think that people of faith can get through adversity better than people who don’t have that,” said Bodenstein Kales. “I’ve seen it with a lot of losses. I really have. The message has to be to our kids that, ‘I understand that you’re feeling scared but we will get through it.’ And calmness from the parents is really important.”

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