School closure might be a dream for some children, but it is a nightmare for others

The rise in calls to Childline suggests many children are suffering and nobody is intervening

One of the problems is that we have very little scientific knowledge about how such a situation might impact upon children

One of the problems is that we have very little scientific knowledge about how such a situation might impact upon children

 

When lockdown ends and life regains some sense of normality, we might reflect with a collective sense of pride at how we as a nation faced the challenges posed by this pandemic. The measure of a society is reflected by how it cares for its more vulnerable members and so the focus upon older people and those with underlying health conditions is rightly justified.

On the other hand, children have been described as “vectors” for the virus, and their emotional vulnerability within this situation is often brushed aside with the common assertion that children “adapt easily” and “are resilient”. This might be true for some children but it is simply not the case for all. By adopting this viewpoint we run the risk of neglecting to consider the profound impact that this pandemic and the resultant lockdown is having on the lives of our nation’s children of all ages.

While school closure might be a dream for some children, for others for whom going to school was their only respite from domestic violence, parental addiction or overcrowded accommodation, the prolonged closure of schools is a nightmare. The rise in the volume of calls to Childline and the decline in child protection referrals to Tusla indicates that many, many children are suffering and nobody is intervening.

They tend to interpret other people’s behaviours as a reaction to something that they did

One of the problems is that we have very little scientific knowledge about how such a situation might impact upon children. We can look to international research such as studies on the impact of Hurricane Katrina or the earthquakes in Christchurch, acute and visibly devastating natural disasters. Research on the impact of ongoing chronic stress, such as that brought about by severe economic downturn might also provide some clues. However, none of these examples are exactly comparable or capture the unique confluence of events with which we are contending on a daily basis.

The way in which young children (up to about the age of seven years) understand the world poses particular challenges for their ability to deal with this situation. Firstly, they operate on a very concrete level – ‘what they see is how they think’. They interact and express themselves by acting physically on their environment. If they cannot see a threat – an invisible virus – it does not exist; and as social beings, distancing is against their natural way of being in the world. Secondly, young children are ego-centric – literally the centre of their own worlds. They tend to interpret other people’s behaviours as a reaction to something that they did.

Dr Elizabeth Nixon. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Dr Elizabeth Nixon. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

So when they are out and about they will have many questions about this new way of being in the world. In the context of an invisible threat, why are people stepping away from me when I come near? Why can I no longer hug my grandparent? Did I do something wrong to elicit this avoidant response from others? Why are people covering their faces with masks – where is the danger? Are they a source of danger? Am I a source of danger? Young children are astute readers of facial cues but covering the face with a mask obscures these cues, making social situations more difficult for them to read. They can no longer see the friendly smile of a stranger.

Children of this age also tend to become somewhat preoccupied with the concept of death – this is a normal developmental milestone. So it is very difficult to explain the danger of the virus without evoking fear that the virus will kill them or people close to them. And most worryingly, they may be too young to articulate their fears. Added to this is that the usual institutions of childhood - such as creches, schools, playgrounds, extra-curricular activities and opportunities to interact with playmates - all of which might provide a distraction and a relief from these fears - are closed down for children.

However children make sense of these new experiences, at the heart of it are the feelings of threat. And one of the most important milestones early in our development is an achievement of a sense of security and trust in the world. But it is challenging to maintain the child’s sense of safety and security in the world when we are all retreating from each other with suspicion. Acting out, sleeping or eating difficulties, physical symptoms (such as tummy aches, constipation) or even regressing in development (ie no longer being able to do things that were once able to do) may be a sign that this feeling of threat has taken hold and is overwhelming for them.

After setting aside our own anxiety, age-appropriate communication, empathy, hugs (where possible) and plenty of reassurance may go some way toward helping them to navigate their way through these unchartered waters.

From a government point of view, it is disheartening that there does not seem to be an expert on child development or early childhood education and care on NPHET or any of its subgroups. Such expertise is essential as policies and protocols relating to re-opening crèches and primary schools are developed. 

Dr Elizabeth Nixon is assistant professor of developmental psychology at Trinity College Dublin 

Read: How will the Covid-19 era affect our youngest citizens?

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