2020-04-28
Story

Brode Gustafson, 15, left holds the family dog and talks to his brother Jake, 12, at their home in Erie, Colo. on April 9, 2020.

Photo by Joe Mahoney / Special to The Colorado Trust

By Jenny McCoy

Shepard Schneider isn’t really scared of the coronavirus. 

“I’m worried for, like, my grandpa and my grandmas and stuff, but that’s really it,” said the 10-year-old Denver resident. 

But COVID-19 is affecting the fifth grader at Palmer Elementary School in other ways. 

“Sometimes I’m inside too much, so I get really anxious and I start getting really mad,” said Shepard of stay-at-home life. And the worst part of the pandemic, he said, is “not getting to see my friends.”

Allie Schneider said she worries about Shepard and his older brother Jackson, age 13.

Recently, Jackson, who is in seventh grade at The Boys School of Denver, “has felt very isolated,” said Allie. “He's used to being a member of a team every day with this group of kids [at school], and he’s felt very, very cut off from that.” 

Shepard, said Allie, seems to be doing better than his older brother. But she has noticed that lately, the fifth grader wants more hugs and physical touch.

“It’s probably a reaction to stress,” she said. The family income has recently been cut because of the pandemic, and there’s also added pressure to “be a good parent” and keep the boys engaged and learning: "The kids are seeing the stress on a lot of levels, even if you do the best to hide it from them.”

Shepard and Jackson are among more than 1.2 million Colorado children living in the surreal new reality that is the coronavirus pandemic. Though children seem to be less susceptible to contracting the virus—currently, just over 4% of all confirmed positive cases in Colorado are among people age 19 and younger—COVID-19 is impacting the state’s youngest residents in other ways: Education is severely altered, daily routines have been destroyed, household stress levels have skyrocketed, and social interactions with peers have been reduced to virtual settings. Such radical changes can cause kids to experience a wide range of emotions, and potentially lead to mental health concerns for some, experts say. 

Erie resident Jen Voigt said the pandemic has impacted all three of her and husband Kyle Gustafson’s children emotionally, but in different ways. 

During the first few weeks after in-person classes were cancelled, 15-year-old Brode struggled with the shock of suddenly not being able to see his friends, and felt trapped at home.

The biggest initial struggle with 12-year-old Jake was that the sports-loving seventh grader hadn’t been able to exercise as much as usual since practices and games were cancelled. This, in turn, led to rapid changes in emotions—feeling fine one minute, and then angry and frustrated the next, said Voigt.

Then there’s 11-year-old Neve, who gets scared about people getting sick and the unknown, said Voigt. Neve has asked to sleep with her mom on several occasions.

“At times, it’s pretty scary,” said Neve. “But knowing that we’re pretty safe inside our house makes me feel better.”

Jessica Bryant, a 30-year-old divorced mom of three elementary school-aged children in Durango, said the virus has impacted her oldest son, 10-year-old Lucian, the most. When an online school assignment caused the fourth grader to realize how much he missed the structure of school and his friends, “he kind of had, like, an emotional meltdown,” she said. “He just got frustrated and said he can't do this, and came into his room and just kind of cried.”

And when fears over the coronavirus first started to spread, Bryant said all three kids likely felt stressed and confused by the conflicting messages that Bryant and her ex-husband, who has partial custody of the kids, were sending about the virus. Bryant said she doesn’t believe her ex-husband was taking the threat as seriously as she was.

Glenda Farmer, who is Bryant’s great aunt, has noticed the emotional weight of the pandemic on her grandchildren. 

“They’re feeling that heaviness of always being [at home],” said Farmer, 56, who lives in Durango with her boyfriend, two daughters, the fiancé of one of the daughters, and six grandchildren ranging in age from three to 17. 

With the coronavirus, “the biggest fear is if someone they care about dies,” said Farmer. “Other than that, they just wish that this would be taken care of and be over, and we'd just go back to normal.” 

Farmer’s grandson Jayden, a fifth grader at Florida Mesa Elementary who is on the autism spectrum, has struggled to stay focused with virtual learning. At home, the 11-year-old doesn’t have the same encouragement and specialized instruction that he receives at school, said Farmer, and that has caused a “little agitation,” she said.

Technology use also seems to influence how many kids are feeling right now. Allie Schneider said their home is typically “screen-free” during the week. But now her kids need technology to participate in distance learning and communicate with friends, and the increased screen time “causes a little bit of behavior problems in our house.”

“They're shorter tempered and that could be partially because they’re cooped up, partially because their eyeballs are not accustomed to staring at a screen all day like ours are,” Schneider said.

Mental health experts in Colorado say children are experiencing a range of responses to the pandemic and the changes that come along with it, depending on their environments and personalities.

“So far, I've seen a lot of mixed reactions,” said Edgar H. Fernandez, licensed professional counselor and bilingual therapist in child and family outpatient services at the Mental Health Center of Denver, of how his young clients are responding to the pandemic. “I've seen some that are handling it well; they’re adjusting to all these changes.” But others, he said, are “struggling more,” especially patients with compulsive behaviors related to anxiety.

“We had had [the compulsive behaviors] under control, and now we’re seeing a reemergence of these behaviors definitely related to what's going on,” Fernandez said, citing examples of compulsive scratching, hair pulling and nail biting.

“I think that there is a lot of uncertainty right now,” said Fernandez, who currently works with about 20 children between the ages of six and 17. “A lot of fear of parents not knowing what's going on, not being sure what's happening. And when children see their parents becoming that upset, they take in some of that.”

It’s very common for kids to “feel frightened or confused during a public health emergency like COVID-19,” said Jessica Hawks, PhD, child and adolescent psychologist and clinical director of outpatient services at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “The great news is that most of our kids are relatively resilient, and so they adjust to these new normals.”

For Myles Cress, a 17-year-old junior at Crested Butte High School, the reality of pandemic life has “definitely been weird.” Even so, Cress said she is feeling “not too bad” about the coronavirus.

“I think that some people are stressed, and I can see the wear on the community that it brings, but I just feel like in this time, I have a lot to be grateful for,” Cress said, including the fact that her mom, Cindy McKee, who is a single parent, is still employed; and that Cress is still able to live “pretty much normally.”

But there are a subset of kids and teens who are going to experience an increase in mental health concerns during this time, said Hawks.

When COVID-19 first started to spread in Colorado, many kids and teens actually felt a reduced amount of stress because of initial plans to cancel school for several weeks, said Hawks, who oversees about 100 clinical visits per week. But as the pandemic has worsened, and many districts announced schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year (Gov. Jared Polis recently announced all schools in the state would stay shuttered for the remainder of the term), stress levels for families have mounted.

As a result Hawks said in early April that, in the last couple of weeks, there had been a “real uptick in the mental health concerns reported to the hospital” among children of all ages.

On April 7, Hawks said the hospital was at capacity in their juvenile psychiatric inpatient units. (Hawks was unable to provide statistics on how often this unit reaches capacity, but said there are typically seasonal variations.)

The highest-risk group right now, said Hawks, are kids who had mental health concerns prior to the pandemic. There's also a subset of kids that didn't previously have significant mental health concerns prior, but perhaps were at risk due to factors like temperament or family history. Now, with the stress brought on by the pandemic, this subset of kids is experiencing novel mental health concerns, she explained.

“One of the major stressors for both kids and adults is just the fear of the unknown,” said Hawks. “We don't know how COVID is going to look over the coming days, weeks, months, how it's going to impact society. Are we going to get sick? Are our family members going to get sick? Are people we know going to die?”

In some households where parents have recently lost their jobs, additional stressors around finances can impact kids. “Even though our kids and teens shouldn't have to worry about those things, because everybody's stuck in the same household, they're inevitably going to hear more of that than they might typically, which is going to increase worries,” said Hawks.

The pandemic has also caused an uptick in the number of kids across the state who are experiencing food insecurity. And not having enough to eat or not having secure housing can cause a negative ripple effect on mental health.

“What we talk about in the child mental health world is this idea of a hierarchy of needs, and at the base hierarchy of needs are those kinds of basic things: shelter, food, water, security,” said Hawks. “And when you don't have that base foundation of needs being met, every need above that is going to be impacted,” including things like mental health, physical health, and relationships with peers and family.

Another stressor for children is having a parent who is an essential worker right now. Fernandez described young children he counsels who are anxious over the fact that their parent works in health care and needs to take extra safety precautions, like changing clothes when they get home from work, or keeping distance from the rest of the family.

“They associate that with something being wrong with dad or mom, and that can cause them some anxiety,” said Fernandez. He described kids who are fearful of their parent going to work and want to “keep an eye on them” and sleep in the same bed.

As a cleaner at a local health care facility, Bryant falls into this category. When her children are at their father’s house, she works about 10 to 15 hours a week cleaning the facility lobbies, door handles, water fountains, public areas, and four sets of bathrooms. The job “for sure” makes Bryant—who said she has mental health issues predating the pandemic, including anxiety and complex post-traumatic stress disorder—concerned about contracting the coronavirus. When Bryant is mopping the large lobby floors, for instance, she wonders if the cleaning solution is effectively killing the virus and worries about the splatter that lands on her shoes. After her shifts, she leaves her shoes outside before entering her three-bedroom apartment.

Kids with undocumented parents are also likely experiencing increased stress right now. Families in such situations “are going to be disproportionately impacted in the sense that they might not be able to access certain government resources,” like the stimulus check, unemployment and food assistance benefits that are available to others, said Hawks. “I think that that can certainly cause stress.”

The newness of distance learning has also been overwhelming for some students, said Fernandez. And for high school seniors, missing highly anticipated life milestones, like prom and graduation, can trigger a sense of grief, added Hawks.

Despite the obvious stressors right now, nearly all of the parents and mental health experts interviewed for this article identified ways the pandemic has positively impacted children. 

“One good thing that I have seen is that parents have been able to spend more time with children now,” said Fernandez. Some of his young clients, he said, tell him about activities they have recently shared with their parents, like creating art, watching movies and baking cookies. These small moments can make a “huge difference” for kids, he said. “It can be just what makes that day fun for them.” 

At the Voigt-Gustafson household, “everybody's just kind of really slowed down,” said Voigt. The kids seem more connected with each other, and the family now does puzzles, plays games, regularly talks with grandparents on the phone, and eats more meals together.

“[The pandemic] makes us realize things, like taking care of our body more,” added Neve. 

Cress said she’s seen “more of some people than I would on a normal basis”—virtually, that is. She described a Zoom happy hour with her cousins and virtual game nights with her older sister who lives in Wisconsin and her dad who lives in Denver. 

At Farmer’s house, “we communicate more,” she said. Bryant said it’s been nice for the family to spend more time together, including increased time outside going hiking, biking and roller blading. And Allie Schneider has enjoyed being able to direct more attention to her kids and less on work. “It reminds us of when we had little bitty kids and I wasn't working at all and they were my entire focus,” she said. 

Silver linings aside, some parents and mental health experts worry that living through a pandemic at a young age could have a long-term negative impact. It’s hard to assess if the pandemic will have lasting effects on children, said Fernandez, but “the longer it goes, it’s going to cause more of that chaos—not necessarily chaos in the streets or in society, but that sense of chaos, like they don't feel like things are okay, things are in order.” 

“Probably what we're seeing is a lot of acute stress right now and typically down the road, like five, six months down the road, we might see greater implications of it, but I can't tell you what those might be,” said Tim Garland, a counselor at Doherty High School in Colorado Springs. 

Allie Schneider is the co-founder and COO of the mama ‘hood, a Denver-based resource center for new and expecting parents, and said she’s heard a lot of worry about long-term effects on kids.

“I'm hoping that [the pandemic] is not pulling human connection further apart, because that's something that I know humans actually really need and crave,” she said. “And I hope that [kids] don't think that the connection that they have via Zoom is how it should be.”

Bryant said she’s concerned that her kids, who all attend The Juniper School, a charter school in Durango, will lose interest in school. “I feel like [school is] becoming more of a chore and not something that they had enjoyed in the past, and I’m worried that might roll over to next year,” she said.

Farmer conveyed worry of a different kind. As someone who has “always been on the lower income side of things,” she hopes that her grandchildren will have a better future. But because of the economic impact of the pandemic, she said she’s scared that won’t be the case.

The global crisis has already reduced her household income. Farmer’s boyfriend and her daughter’s fiancé are the two employed members of the household. As hourly workers—one works at a local gas-station convenience store and the other is a roofer—both of their paychecks have been cut recently.

But fortunately, the family is still able to pull together enough money to cover rent for their four-bedroom, two-bathroom house, thanks to several government assistance programs, as well as child support from some of the children’s fathers. The local school district has also stepped in by regularly dropping off meals for the kids.

Still, the biggest economic stressor, said Farmer, is covering the monthly utility bill, which climbed as high as $847 one month this past winter.

Bryant is also worried about paying certain bills, including internet fees. She said her internet provider recently gave her a two-month extension on paying off the current tab, which includes accrued late fees. But she’s concerned about the “huge bill” that will come when the grace period is over. With her kids now doing virtual learning, having internet access is “pretty important,” she said.

Hawks had encouraging words for parents worried about the long-term impact of the coronavirus crisis on their children: Though the “overwhelming majority” of kids will feel frightened and confused during the pandemic, “the overwhelming majority of those kids are resilient,” she said, and once the pandemic subsides, they will likely not experience any long-lasting effects. 

But that statement comes with an asterisk. Research suggests that kids who experience traumatic events—”and a pandemic certainly could be included as a traumatic event”—can be at increased risk of developing emotional disorders and physical illnesses later on in life, said Hawks. And experiencing repeated trauma can increase that risk even more. 

Also, some Colorado children may currently be victims of abuse incited by the pandemic, a situation that can lead to devastating long-term effects.

“We know just historically that any time our society experiences a public health crisis like the pandemic that we're currently in, there is an increase in the prevalence of both child abuse and domestic abuse,” said Hawks. “It’s just important for parents to be aware that any time we have increased stress in our lives, that it can increase the risk of our ideal parenting strategies [being] taxed and we can be more at risk of engaging in parenting behaviors that we wouldn't otherwise engage in.”

Mental health experts also have advice for how parents can help their children best cope.

“We know from research that the number one way that children and teens learn to navigate their world is by watching how their parents do it,” said Hawks. “Parents have a tremendous responsibility to overtly model the kinds of coping that they would hope that their children would engage in during this pandemic.” 

“Being able to show them that you're worried, you're concerned, but you're handling things—that is going to be most helpful for children,” said Fernandez. 

Beyond positive modeling, creating structure and a daily schedule is “critical right now,” said Hawks. Both kids and adults “do better when we navigate a world that has predictability and consistency,” she said.

But following this advice is much easier for some Colorado families than others. Parents who are essential workers, for example, may not be able to enforce a daily schedule as effectively since they aren’t at home as often. And it may be more difficult for them to model effective coping skills, as their stress levels are likely higher due to fears of contracting the virus while at work.

In families with essential workers, Fernandez advised parents to “create as much structure as they can.” And for any parent feeling overwhelmed, Fernandez suggests keeping children focused on what they can do to help—like regular hand-washing—rather than emphasizing the uncertainties of the situation.

When it comes to discussing the pandemic with children, Hawks advised parents to regularly talk openly and honestly with their kids about the coronavirus while keeping such conversations focused on answering the child’s questions, versus volunteering lots of information.

For toddler-age up to middle or late elementary school-age children, Hawks advises parents to provide brief, simple information; reassure kids that adults are there to keep them healthy; and give simple examples of steps that everyone can take to stop germs from spreading. With older children, she recommended speaking more candidly and providing factual information from reliable governmental entities.

When discussing coronavirus with kids, “it's really important to provide reassurance without making unrealistic promises,” said Hawks. “So we can't promise that there aren't going to be any cases of coronavirus in our neighborhood. What we can promise is that adults are doing all that they can to keep everybody safe.”

Jenny McCoy
Journalist
Boulder, Colorado