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Growing concerns: The disruptive effects of a pandemic on children

The forced isolation imposed on families across the country due to COVID-19 has left a massive impact on the lives of everyone involved. This has been no less true for some of the most vulnerable members of society—children. Over the past couple of months, the conventional life that a child may have known has been upended. 

However, the effects the quarantine period may have on these children may not only lie in new day-to-day activities, but could also significantly impact their lives even far beyond the period surrounding the pandemic. Even as many of the world’s structures and systems have been brought to a screeching halt, it is crucial that children’s development is not left to the same standstill fate.

Stay-at-home limits

“Children thrive on structure,” says Dr. Ria Abesamis-Abaya, a pediatrician at St. Luke’s Medical Center. “Structure—a schedule, activities that occur on a regular basis—[teaches] children self-regulation. It allows them to learn more effectively. It allows the child’s brain to grow and develop better.”

However, the pandemic and its associated measures—from isolation and distancing to changes in educational modes—have thoroughly disrupted routines and what regularity children’s lives may have had before COVID-19. Consider, for instance, how children taken care of by health workers, constantly exposed to potential viral carriers, may have to adjust to not seeing their parental figures for prolonged periods of time, or how children taken care of by someone who recently became unemployed may bear the repercussions of such financial strains. 

The effects may prove to be profound, even disproportionately so, as not every household can cope equally well to these unprecedented circumstances.

Further, the physical restrictions imposed can lead to harmful consequences in the long run, as Abesamis-Abaya notes, “Limited physical movement in enclosed spaces may…predispose [children] to unhealthy weight gain and deteriorating muscle strength due to lack of physical exercise and play.”

In fact, a child’s nutritional status may be put at great risk amid the crisis, with economic stability as well as food security both being under persistent threat. 

“Due to restrictions and supply chain interruptions, there is a limit to the quantity of food, as well as the variety of food available to [children],” Abesamis-Abaya discusses. “Families in quarantine have limited access to fresh and nutritionally dense food items, [especially] among children of financially challenged families.”

Long-term worries  

For children, prolonged social isolation can also pose serious perils to their psychological health and development, with the potential for some adverse effects manifesting later on in life. “Socially-isolated children [may] develop early depression [and] anxiety disorders. They may withdraw from society; they may be unable to develop [the] skills that enable them to form long-term relationships with others when they grow older,” Abesamis-Abaya explains. 

Among the most sobering effects of social isolation has been the increase in sentiments of loneliness as people all over the world grapple with reduced social contact. Children are perhaps more vulnerable to its consequences, with fond farewells having been bid to play dates and face-to-face interactions with fellow kids.

“It is said that loneliness in adulthood is the result of loneliness in childhood,” Abesamis-Abaya shares, adding that extensive periods of loneliness may eventually “weaken the immune system and may predispose to the development of heart disease, stroke, and mental illness.” 

But loneliness isn’t the only psychological concern that children are susceptible to. The pediatrician illustrates that a myriad of other mental health stressors may also be present, apart from the lack of social contact; factors such as their parents’ stress and anxiety, the cacophony of alarming news reports about the pandemic, economic pressures on the family, and even child maltreatment all contribute toward a potentially stressful environment.

Onward and forward

Given these dangers, it is clear that further steps must be taken to provide positive physical, mental, and emotional support for children. Parents and guardians have monumental roles in vanquishing these dangers, Abesamis-Abaya points out, and it is “important for them to understand and identify the best course of action in any given situation.”

“I recommend that parents keep themselves well-informed with correct data, and stay calm,” she says. “Information is power. Children have questions and they will feel secure if their parents can answer their queries in a most educational and impassive manner. Parents must always [try to] be reassuring.”

However, the pediatrician also acknowledges that each family’s situation may be different. Indeed, the onus falls not only on parental figures, but also on larger social institutions to consider the ramifications that policies and programs may have on children—establishing support structures to help households and families so that the brunt of the consequences are minimized, and most especially, diverted from children.

The world faces a very drastic state in these times, but keeping children safe, no matter the circumstances, is always a necessity. Children represent the future of society: they embody who we were and who we will be. If there’s any hope of coming out of these dark days to find better ones on the road ahead, it will surely be through the young minds and hearts we nurture and care for amid the trials and tribulations of today.

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