Local child therapists said social distancing and isolation can sometimes cause children to feel unseen and undervalued, causing some to shut off from society.
Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Therapists said that because of the pandemic, the world we're living in looks a lot like this: loneliness, absence of laughter and empty swing sets.
Due to COVID-19, children have been forced to say goodbye to what’s familiar. Friendships are cultivated from a distance and teachers are forced to split their time between in-person, blended and online learning.
Katy Keidel is a child therapist specializing in trauma. Keidel said putting a pandemic on top of growing pains has weakened kids’ social skills and challenged those who learn best by doing, adding newfound anxiety that they don't have the emotional maturity to cope with.
“It’s just, kids aren’t understanding how to relate to one another and not understanding, anymore, how to relate to their friends or their families. People that they’re involved with in the community, which they’re no longer involved with. One of the worries I have too is that bullying is going to be on the up-rise,” said Keidel. “Not only are they going through the trauma of just the pandemic in itself, and the fright and the fear and the instability, but they're also not having these attachments, which is normally one of the big healers for trauma. The fact that they’re not having that and they’re having to relearn that and then, you know the possibility of it breaking again, too.”
Autumn Cooper is a counselor and registered play therapist with the Carter County Health Department. Cooper said society needs to be a sounding board and a collective advocate for kids.
"Children are not as visible as they have been. We don’t have these extra adults, these what we call protective factors, who are protecting children, keeping an eye on things, and just making sure children are safe and fed,” said Cooper. "So, we’re seeing an increase in child abuse. There's been a decrease in the numbers of children that its being reported on, but an increase in the intensity and severity of child abuse."
Cooper said teachers, pastors and therapists who usually have that face-to-face access to children no longer have that ability.
“Connection is protection,” said Cooper. “Children rely on school and church and play dates, birthday parties or outings for that connection.”
Cooper said seeing the signs through a computer camera or a mask isn't easy, but she’s noticed a trend of hypervigilance and hyperawareness from children. Kids are even becoming fixated on wearing masks and sanitizing.
“Children say, you know, ‘I just want my normal life back. I’m just ready to not be in corona[virus] world anymore,’” Cooper said.
Keidel said she’s noticed kids withdrawing from things they used to enjoy.
“They are detaching from, you know, the things that made them who they are,” said Keidel. “And so, not only are we seeing that in society, but the saddest part is that kids are detaching from themselves.”
Keidel said she's seen patients resort to self-harm and learn bad habits from endless access to the Internet. She believes the solution is conversation and connection.
"One of the best things I think is to always be transparent with your kids or kids in society or kids in the community,” said Keidel. “You know, go up to them and say, ‘You know, this pandemic is really, really hard for me, and I just feel like I’m kind of alone sometimes. Do you ever feel alone sometimes?’ And just phrasing it to where kids have something to connect to.”
Keidel said she's also concerned for children in foster care or shelters, because their basic needs might not be being met, along with their emotional needs. She said there’s a fear of them acting out or even running away.
“I mean honestly, if we don’t step it up as a community, we’re looking at a lot of kids with lives that are being destroyed,” said Keidel. “I’m seeing a lot of kids right now that are going in and out of our mental hospitals, because they don’t know how to cope and they’re living with grandparents and you know, they’re doing the best that they can to survive.”
Keidel said this may sound daunting, but there is still hope to be had.
“You know there’s a lot of hope in our society, in our community. There’s a lot of hope in the parents and the educators out there. And there’s a lot of hope in the kids,” said Keidel. “Our kids right now are so resilient and they’re so strong. They’re so creative, and I feel like if we just learn and we appreciate the fact that we really need to come together and connect with one another in one way or another, that we can build back, and that we can come back even stronger than we were before.”