Unfortunately, we are seeing many adverse effects on children due to the shutdown.
Adolescents and school age children are experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression. Many children are having trouble academically due to the lack of in person instruction. This even includes children who previously excelled in school. Consultations regarding possible ADHD in young children, due to the age inappropriate expectation that they will sit quietly and attentively in front of a computer screen for hours at a time, are skyrocketing. Even 1 year old babies are showing speech delay, likely due to a decrease in social interaction.
Due to lack of physical activity and constant access to unhealthy food, we are seeing abnormal weight gain in children age 5 and up. Parent stress is at an all time high as they struggle to work from home, supervise their children's Zoom classes and handle the economic impact of the pandemic on their families.
You can help your family cope with the effects of the shutdown
If you have the option and there is no one in your circle at high risk for Covid complications, try for in person school. More and more private schools are opening for onsite classes. A few of these are no cost to students.
If this is not an option for you and your child is struggling in school, get an in person tutor to help him or her. Check your list of family and friends who may be able to help. High school and college students are often willing, especially those who aspire to be teachers one day.
If your children are doing fine in school, they still need social interaction, ideally in person. Some sports are opening up. You may be able to create small safe groups of friends who can meet regularly at a park or other outdoor space. Good hand washing and not sharing food at these gatherings will decrease the chances of covid infection.
Encourage your children to remain active while at home. Consider taking a daily family walk or hike. If your child was active in a sport, try to maintain her skills by practicing at home. Dancing and Martial Arts are also family activities to maintain fitness. You can freestyle or Youtube a workout. Tracking steps with a pedometer or phone is another strategy. You could even have a prize for the most steps in a day or week or better yet, a reward for each person in the family who hits the 10,000 recommended steps each day.
Many children are practically addicted to their electronic devices. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than 2 hours of “Screen Time” per day. Most families have relaxed this rule and often children and teens spend 4-6 hours per day playing video games and watching YouTube.
While this is a direct and understandable result of the constraints on our lives caused by Covid, it is harming our children in obvious ways as well in ways we will only appreciate in a few years. They are not gaining life skills, interacting with peers, being active in sports or clubs. The reward center in their brains is being activated multiple times per minute as they master “skills” that only exist within the game. Learning real skills, like playing an instrument or learning a language or becoming great at a sport…does not provide the same frequent reward system feedback that these games provide. It was an issue before Covid, but now it is more prevalent as the opportunity for real life and genuine relationships diminishes.
Your best solution here is to offer whatever real activities that you can find. Creating art, learning a new language as a family, building a project together, home improvements, gardening…are all possibilities. Even learning a sport together, like tennis or golf, may be an option.
If your children are having way too much screen time, work in baby steps. You can’t effectively decrease screen time until you’ve created something to replace it. You might start by measuring how much screen time they are getting now. Once you establish the baseline, start introducing activities to see what seems to interest them. When you find something, go all in! Measure your progress month to month rather than day to day.
Much of the weight gain due to the shutdown is due to lack of routine that allows for more frequent eating than a school schedule would permit. Establish a regular meal routine, hopefully one that includes a healthy breakfast prior to logging into class. Continue with a set time for morning snack, lunch and hopefully a real sit down family dinner.
Consider only having healthy snacks in the house: ready to eat fruits and vegetables, low-fat or nonfat yogurt with fruit, string cheese… Take into account your child’s preferences (sweet vs salty for instance) and provide healthy snacks that he will like. Many families are using air fryers to make low fat snacks. Air fried vegstables such as edamame, chickpeas, zucchini and carrots are great alternatives to chips. Air fried potato chips and French fries are far healthier than their alternatives but are an “in moderation” snack.
Older children tend to gravitate toward convenience foods at meals, especially when left alone. Mac and Cheese, noodle soups, white bread, pop tarts and toaster waffles are poor choices from several perspectives. They contain lots of empty calories and spike blood sugar. The body rapidly breaks these foods down to sugar (glucose), which it then stores directly as fat. Due to the rapid rise and fall of blood sugar, children are often hungry again within a few hours. These choices also compete out healthier protein and vitamin containing foods.
Strongly consider not having convenience foods or processed snack food in your home. Also, sugary drinks such as soft drinks and sweetened teas should be avoided. Offer the healthier alternatives for a month and see what happens!
Lack of sleep in children is also an effect of the pandemic. A less structured schedule, lack of physical activity and stress induced insomnia all contribute to less sleep. Sleep is important for height growth, maintaining a healthy weight and optimal cognitive and emotional functioning.
Implement and maintain a schedule that allows your child to get up to 10 hours of sleep per night. Stopping screen time 1 hour prior to bedtime is important. For younger and school age children a pleasant bedtime routine is essential. For adolescents, help them create a routine that works for them. In this age group, more sleep definitely improves academic performance. Physical activity, a regular daytime and bedtime schedule and stress reduction are all factors that will help your child or teen get enough sleep.