The pandemic and ill-advised school lockdowns have taken a toll on our children, and another survey adds more detail to what we know. The University of Michigan recently conducted a survey of parents nationwide, who reported significant bad effects from school lockdowns. The survey questioned 977 parents about their teenagers' mental health symptoms pre- and post-lockdown. 46% of parents reported new or worsening mental health conditions since the lockdown. More parents of girls than boys reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. The reports of sleep changes, withdrawal, and aggression were similar. "Peer groups and social interactions are a critical part of development during adolescence. But these opportunities have been limited during the pandemic," says poll co-director and Mott pediatrician Gary L. Freed, M.D., M.P.H. "Many teens may feel frustrated, anxious and disconnected due to social distancing and missing usual social outlets, like sports, extracurricular activities and hanging out with friends."
School lockdowns have affected all ages, but seem to be hitting teenagers particularly hard. As Dr. Freed pointed out, "Just as young people are at the age of being biologically primed to seek independence from their families, COVID-19 precautions have kept them at home." It is no wonder that teens are experiencing more difficulties than their younger siblings.
Dr. Freed and his team offer some ways in which parents can help, such as encouraging more interaction while taking precautions, seeking expert help, and encouraging healthy sleep patterns. I was particularly struck by the advice to encourage your children to interact more with their peers. That suggestion goes against the guidelines we hear from the CDC and local health departments. I believe that those guidelines are too cautious and consider only one aspect of our children’s lives. The available research indicates that lockdowns are not necessary for children, because they tend to not catch or transmit COVID, and that the mental health effects of lockdowns are much more serious. More important, outdoor activities pose a very low threat of transmission for anyone. Allowing our children to engage in sports or outdoor activities with their friends, then, poses very little danger to them or other people in the family.
I believe in recognizing expertise, but I also believe that experts know a lot about only a narrow slice of life. Epidemiologists know about disease, but they do not know much about mental health. We are the experts about our children, and only we can weigh all of the factors involved in parenting them. Advice from the CDC is like all other expertise -- we need to pay attention, but then incorporate it in a way that works best for our children.