The mental health of stressed young people was transformed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: Many felt better. Anxiety and symptoms of depression dropped among older, high-achieving children in the United States. That was particularly true for students about to graduate from high school, our research in U.S. schools has found.
Why? Children relaxed … for a bit. COVID-19 provided a full stop to the busyness of some teenage lives. The treadmill of pressure, activities, and commitments halted. Out went crisscrossing among band practice, sports clubs, social activities, and hours of homework into the small hours. Lockdowns brought that high-octane life to a sudden standstill.
Children got more sleep – they weren’t leaving home at 7 am. Many schools had staggered hours and reduced the pressure, shifting from grading assignments to awarding a pass or fail. Social anxiety was reduced – a teenager didn’t need to worry about being left out of the lunch table or not being invited to parties that no longer happened. Missing out on a romantic relationship didn’t matter as much – kids were not seeing seemingly happy couples at school or at social gatherings.
But this break didn’t last. As we worked with schools through the arrival of summer, we found that anxiety and depression had risen again among older high school students. Their initial relief morphed into feeling that life was unsettling, scary, and lonely — young people experienced grief about incomplete endings and fears about what might lie ahead.
“Anxiety and depression dropped initially for older, high-achieving children in the United States.”
Middle school children less relieved
Children in middle school did not have even the initial relief – in our survey, anxiety and depression stayed at previous levels for them. That’s probably because virtual communication is more challenging for children of this age. Their peer groups are less well formed and less stable than those of 16- to 18-year-olds. If you are an awkward, insecure 12-year-old with few social connections, it can be easier to casually share confidences with friends at soccer practice or while walking around than to do so from home via Zoom. Self-consciousness kicks in: “Will they like my room?” “Will they see my family?”
We’ve learned a lot about what helps children of all ages feel good in a period characterized by prolonged uncertainty, with no end in sight. Two predictors of their well-being stand out: the well-being of parents and the supportiveness of teachers.
Parents and teachers vital for resilience
First, we found strong, unique links between adolescents’ depression and anxiety and whether they felt their parents were coping well. When children felt their parents maintained a calm, stable home and were in good enough shape to provide emotional support, they were likely to be doing well. This was true across ages, genders, and races. Our finding is in sync with a major report published last year on children’s well-being by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Its take-home message: If you want children to do well, the single most important step is to ensure that the parents are doing well themselves.
“When children felt their parents maintained a calm, stable home and were in good enough shape to provide emotional support, they were likely to be doing well.”
Second, our research found that the support of key adults – and teachers in particular – was vital to children in maintaining their well-being. In open-ended questions on what was going well in their schools, children and youth responded most often with answers such as, “My teacher cares about me and reaches out to me,” and ‘I really like that my teachers check in on how I’m feeling and not just my school work.”
Parents need proper care
These two observations should inform practice and policy. The first highlights that we need to expand the focus of policy and practice beyond just styles of parenting. Children’s well-being depends not simply on quality of care but is linked directly to parents’ own well-being. During the pandemic, adults – just like children – also require love, gentleness, comfort, and stability. This helps the adults ensure that their children feel well looked after.
“Burned out” teachers need help, too
Teachers’ welfare is also important, not just for its own sake, but also because these adults provide valuable care and support for students. During the pandemic, we surveyed U.S. teachers’ well-being. Stress rates stayed steady, but clinically significant burnout has risen sharply among educators since March 2020. The risk factors seem to be lack of clarity about what they are required to do and blurry boundaries between work and recreation. These findings reflect how many teachers have worked long hours and had few breaks over the summer. Their needs should also be supported, especially if they are to play their role in bolstering children’s resilience.
Which aspects of home life were most helpful?
Our research about children during the COVID-19 pandemic identified three factors, , that reliably predicted anxiety and depression in children. By far the most important was having a low-quality relationship with parents. Following this was lack of structure to the day (separating time for leisure or fun), and high levels of distraction or inability to focus on schoolwork.
Parents and schools can help address each of these factors. For parents, the challenge in these very difficult circumstances is to stay well themselves. Stress levels have risen for all and it is important that parents share their burdens with others and, where necessary – and if they can – seek professional help.
Manage technology, expectations, and assignments
For schools, an important task is to support their teachers well. Professional development programs must address directly the psychological burdens educators take on as they support their students through the pandemic. For students, schools should ensure that their days are well-structured and that lessons are not too long. Online technology should be streamlined so children are not juggling between different platforms. Educators should scale back expectations and focus on the core skills children need, letting go of much of the rest. Teachers should coordinate with other teachers when making assignments and scheduling due dates. It doesn’t take much figuring out to ensure, for example, that Monday is science homework day, Tuesday is math homework day, and so on. This helps children have a predictable and manageable week.
None of us should forget, if life begins to return to how it once was, that there was something wrong with the overly busy schedules of many children’s lives. The figures for serious anxiety and depression tell the story. COVID-19 has brought its own problems, but the temporary sense of relaxation it has offered some children shows that life was not that healthy beforehand. Children deserve better than the old normal.
Header photo: Unsplash.