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Can we change the long-term impact of the pandemic on young minds?

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What does historic hardship tell us about the future of Little Lockdowners?

Can past events like poverty and war help us to understand what the long-term impacts pandemic environments will have on early years children? We speak to a global expert to gather exclusive insight.

There are apparent similarities between the environments created by the pandemic and poverty and war. Not least: relentless fear, job losses and economic downturn, sickness and death, and uncertainty around what the future may hold.

As the world was thrust into a new territory of unpredictability and uncertainty, pandemic-born babies and early years children lived in challenging environments that many youngsters don’t typically experience.

Some early studies on pandemic babies show evidence of developmental delays. However, to understand the potential long-term impacts on psychological and social development, we’ll take a look at past events and the impact on young children.

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Economic impacts and poverty

History has shown that violent conflict causes economic upheaval and intensifies poverty. The resulting damage to infrastructure and disruption to social environments can affect people’s vulnerability and ability to respond to poverty.

During the pandemic, as more and more families lost their sources of income, the global economy plummeted into recession. There were severe economic costs of the pandemic: job losses, inflation, shortages, a rise in debt and disruption to regular economic activity. Some of the hardest hit were those already on low wages.

Between 2019 and 2020, the number of unemployed people worldwide increased by 37.72 million (from 185.95 million to 223.67 million). As a result, more households plunged into poverty.

For many, simply being able to afford transport costs to send children to school or put food on the table is a daily hardship – a problem that is set to increase as fuel and food prices continue to rise.

The implications of missing out on education are clear, but the impact of hunger on a child’s ability to learn is detrimental too. A large percentage (81%) of teachers say hungry children are unable to concentrate, while 75% say hungry children are more lethargic and 47% say they are unable to learn.

Dr Michael Ungar, a family therapist and internationally-renowned researcher in social and psychological resilience, explains that these conditions threaten a child’s prospects.

Ungar explains: “Children exposed to chronic poverty and those disadvantaged by race and class and gender etc. come into the education system at a disadvantage; they just don’t have the vocabulary or the enriched opportunities to develop.

“Without access to education and fair opportunities, children are deprived of reaching their physical and cognitive development potential.”

And there are profound long-term implications of being disadvantaged from a young age. An American study on recessions found that young children and babies who live in areas hit hardest by a recession face lower odds of graduating from college, earning less money and are more likely to live in poverty as adults.

In the wake of the pandemic recovery, the gap between richer and poorer countries widens; while more affluent countries recover, poorer countries are saddled with debt and development gains are falling behind. It is more crucial than ever that governments support struggling poor households.

Long-term impacts of prenatal stress

Those living in poverty face educational disadvantages but are also in environments that are increasingly stressed.

Even before 2020, mental disorders were the leading causes of the global health-related burden, with depressive and anxiety disorders leading contributors. Then the pandemic created environments that exacerbated poor mental health. As a result, more pregnant women were stressed, and more children were born to burnt-out parents.

Suzanne King’s research into the 1998 North American Ice Storm helps us understand more about prenatal trauma and stress impacts on the growth, behaviour and cognitive and physical development of children. The storm plunged more than 3 million people into darkness, hardship, cold and deprivation for a month. Livestock was decimated, the weight of ice brought down trees, and people died of hyperthermia – it was an unforgettable natural disaster.

King and her team studied the effects of stress on 200 pregnant women affected by the storm and their future children. They discovered:

  • Children whose mothers had been exposed to significant prenatal maternal stress (the number of days without power) had lower IQs, and less-developed language and cognitive skills than those whose mothers had not experienced such a high level of stress.
  • The higher the level of the mothers’ objective difficulties (the length of the power outage) due to the ice storm, the more severe their children’s autistic traits were at the age of 6.5 years old.

Dr Ungar agrees that chronic accumulation of stress can get under children’s skin. “It carries through; you can see the effects years later,” he says. “Whether you’re talking about exposure to chronic war in places like Palestine and Israel, or otherwise, the story keeps repeating. Something’s probably happening for kids right now, at a very subtle level.”

Building resilience to change the course of history

Adverse outcomes are far from guaranteed, though – even for children who have witnessed the worst atrocities. Theresa Betancourt spent nearly two decades following the life trajectories of children forced to fight in wars and found that while some act out after experiencing trauma, the majority did not.

There is often tremendous resilience among war-affected children, with many able to overcome trauma and lead a ‘normal’ life.

In Harvard’s Life after death: Helping former child soldiers become whole again, Theresa notes that former child soldiers are not a monolithic population of the emotionally wrecked.

She said: “When people think of child soldiers, they think of people who are terribly damaged in some way, but I’ve seen very much the opposite: tremendous stories of resilience, of acceptance, of love in families… some of these young people, especially those who survived abuse, possess a sense of resourcefulness, which shows up in confidence and a sense that they can control their fate.”

How will building resilience help children impacted by the pandemic?

Simply put, resilience serves as a mental buffer that helps people bounce back from life’s challenges. It’s built from events that challenge a person’s ability to cope.

There are multiple benefits of resilience.

  • It helps us develop coping mechanisms for the challenges, difficulties and issues of life
  • Improves learning
  • Reduces risk-taking behaviours such as substance abuse
  • Contributes to increased physical health[1]

Dr Ungar draws on his resilience expertise to explain how children react differently to stress and trauma.

“While working with very vulnerable children in mental health settings, I encountered stories of incredible growth and development where you would expect the opposite to be happening,” he says. “I began to do research with the children. They were explaining some of those exceptional outcomes as a result of simply getting support along the way or having certain qualities that met an environment that allowed them to be their best selves.”

Almost like how a vaccine protects us from a virus, the optimum environments for building resilience are those that create manageable amounts of stress and allow us to fail occasionally, so we can learn, grow and eventually succeed.

Conversely, overprotective parenting can hinder building resilience. Dr Ungar explains: “This notion that a child should never be uncomfortable sets up a situation where a child doesn’t have access to manageable amounts of stress or failure. The consequence is that they just don’t have what I called ‘the risk taker’s advantage’ anymore; they’re simply not ready to take on appropriate amounts of risk and don’t show the kind of necessary resilience that we need.”

How to build resilience in children

Nuances of routines, structure, relationships, safety and security all create an environment rich in the protective factors that allow a child to withstand more complex stressors.

Encouraging decision making is a vital part of development. Dr Ungar says: “We don’t often think about three-year-olds as decision-makers – but of course, they make decisions. Parenting coach Barbara Coloroso used to talk about how a child cannot decide their bedtime, but they can decide if they wear the blue pyjamas or the green pyjamas when they’re three years old.”

Dr Ungar offers some top tips for building resilience.

  • Check your mental health. Teachers who feel good and are getting their own mental health needs met will have more energy in the classroom.
  • Impose consistency and routines
  • Hold children accountable for their actions
  • Create safe and predictable environments
  • Encourage children to get muddy again. Remind them they don’t need to wash their hands obsessively; after the toilet, absolutely, but not every time they touch another child or pick up a book or move around the classroom. 

Resilience is just one piece of the puzzle in helping children to reach their full potential in a post-pandemic world, but with the right support, safe environments and structure, positive change is possible.

[1] https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/memberarticles/the-importance-of-building-resilience

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