The Emotional Impact of the Pandemic on Children and Helping Parents Provide Support

May 13, 2021

As the winds of normalcy seem to be blowing in a positive direction, I grow in my concern that our fast-paced, short-attention-span society is going to move forward so quickly that we will lose sight of the lingering pain experienced by so many over the last year. Many of these wounds are under the skin and their impact may be felt for years to come – long after the attention surrounding the pandemic has subsided.

Families who were devastated economically, young children whose education was completely upended, minority communities who had to navigate the hardships of the pandemic in addition to the persistent anguish brought on by structural racial inequities. The lingering effects of these traumatic experiences will not go away just because someone got their COVID19 vaccine.

So how do we combat this tendency in ourselves to paper over our traumatic experiences and just “move on”? As trite as it may sound, it all starts with pausing and looking in the mirror.

If you’re reading this as the parent of a young person, the first thing I recommend is not to analyze or assess your child – but first and foremost reflect on you. Every one of our youth is a member of a system, sometimes that is a biological family system, sometimes adoptive or foster, but they’re all a part of a family system. Those systems have their own unwritten rules and roles. And the youth are not the powerbrokers of these systems – they are the consequences of the system. Our youth are downstream from us as parents. If I am having a bad day, my kids are likely going to have a bad day as a consequence…far more likely than I am to have a bad day just because my kids did.

As the parent, I set the tone and the tempo and temperature for the home. Kids are naturally adaptive, so they’ll adapt to whatever environment we parents are setting. Well, what if we had a bad week? A bad month? What if all of 2020 was bad for you?

These questions are being asked without a hint of judgement – this is not a question of judgement or moralizing, it is simply a fact that if you as a parent have been struggling with increased depression, isolation, anxiety, anger, substance use, economic instability and you’re not on a pathway to working through those challenges – that is impacting your children. And it’s okay to acknowledge it. Actually, it’s beyond okay – it’s necessary that we acknowledge it.

One could argue that there has never been a generation of young people that were more prepared for the pandemic than those who just experienced it. Especially adolescents who prior to 2020 spent a large portion of their social lives in the virtual world. Many of them were pre-wired to be completely fine with the pivot to virtual life that so many adults struggled just to know how to log into a Zoom call.

What a child is never pre-wired for is living with a parent who is going through their own emotional turmoil and not getting help. This is not to say that our kids don’t have experiences outside of us that impact their mental health. Our kids’ social circles are extremely powerful forces in their lives. But they are forces we have very little control over. What we do have control over is ourselves, and our homes.

As I described above, children are downstream from parents in so many ways. Our behaviors impact them. The unfortunate reality of this “downstream dynamic”, is even when we as parents get back on steady ground and experience greater calm, clarity or emotional health…often our kids lag behind in the healing process. For example, I might lose my temper and yell at one of my kids one morning and by the afternoon I have gotten into a better headspace and moved on with a more positive day. But the pain or anger my kid experienced may last days or weeks unbeknownst to me. Or take this example that was unfortunately so prevalent – a parent lost their job due to the pandemic and their family experienced weeks/months of uncertainty and increased levels of toxic stress in the home.

The parent was able to secure employment after six months and has since been able to build back their sense of self-worth, and the family is back on firmer financial footing. The parent may feel, rightly, since they are feeling a renewed sense of safety and health that their kids should too. However, that kid’s sense of trust in the security and safety provided by the caretakers may be damaged for years. They may go to bed every night for the next year wondering when their world is going to be completely upended again. Their levels of anxiety, depression, and uncertainty are not necessarily going to bounce back at the same pace they do for their parent.

So, what do we do with that as parents? How do we make sure our kids are alright?

I’d recommend looking at yourself and looking at how the last year has impacted you and therefore impacted them. There may have been some words said, or not said, in this last year that we as parents need to make amends for. Our kids watch everything we do and hear everything we say. So, I recommend we all take some stock of what we did and what we said this last year – and consider that there may need to be some intentional conversations we have with our kids around those actions.

Once you’ve done that, and since we laid out earlier that kids’ healing process may lag behind our own, I recommend spending some quality time engaging with your kids and processing what the last year was like from their perspective. Some of them might be completely fine. Some of them might feel so lost and isolated that they don’t even know how to describe it. You don’t have to be a therapist; you don’t have to have the perfect words – you just need to try.

Try to engage them in a conversation. Try to let them know you love them and you’re there for them if they need to talk. If your gut is telling you they may need some professional help, don’t ignore it. Our communities are full of incredible counselors waiting to help your child and you navigate through life.

The winds may be blowing towards normalcy with the pandemic. This is a great thing. But instead of getting “back to normal”, let’s strive to create a “new normal”. A normal that recognizes the pain, wounds and challenges that are both seen and unseen. A normal that allows people to freely express themselves and their emotions without judgement. A normal that opens up the channels of healthy, honest conversation between parents and children. Maybe the next normal can be even better than the last.

About the Author

Chief Program Officer Matt Simon, MA, LMFT, NADD-CC, joined Thompson in April 2016. He supports the day-to-day operations through setting the vision, executing strategy, and ensuring all program leaders are fully supported.

Prior to joining Thompson, Matt has led at both residential and community-based organizations, in additional to being a practicing Family Therapist with a focus on youth and families who had experienced trauma. Matt earned his Bachelor’s degree in Religion and Youth Ministry at Hope College and his Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Pfeiffer University.

Matt’s drive to ensure every child has opportunity and access to weather their storms and achieve their dreams is derived from transformative relationships with adults that helped to guide him during pivotal times in his youth.