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Experts say this is what children need to survive the COVID-19 pandemic

USA TODAY spoke with experts in child development on how remote school, reduced socialization and increased screen time is affecting kids.

It has been almost a year of pandemic parenting, an all-consuming, ever-changing chaos that has tested American families in unprecedented ways.

Schools closed, then opened, then closed again. Playdates were fewer and fraught with new rules. Working parents often did their jobs without child care, while parents of teens did their best to buffer against a litany of losses – friends, sports, proms, graduations. For many low-income families, COVID-19 exacerbated existing hardships, and toxic stress trickled down from parent to child. 

Nine months after COVID-19 changed everything, parents are asking the same question they asked at the start: Will my children be OK?

To answer that, USA TODAY spoke with more than a dozen experts. What we heard was children need what they always have: caregivers who are present and emotionally available. They need people to help them make sense of uncertainty and loss, who can help them navigate fear and change.

"Children can go through divorce, they can go through death, they can go through just an amazing array of things and come out looking pretty good, if they've got somebody who can support them," said Mary Dozier, a psychology professor at the University of Delaware who studies children who have experienced adversity.

USA TODAY asked parents for their most pressing questions. Experts in child development and education answer below. 

How do I know if my child is OK?

Experts say there is no universal "normal." To know how well your child is coping, look for differences in behavior. 

Brenda Jones Harden, the Alison Richman professor of children and families at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, said "normal" is different for every child. Parents should be concerned if their child appears more sad, hopeless or angry.

Teens, for example, are volatile and moody, but if those mood swings become more extreme, that's worth attention. Similarly, a child who starts having accidents after being fully toilet-trained might be struggling.

Phil Fisher, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, said even those signs aren't necessarily red flags, but they are changes parents should monitor. 

Is adversity good for kids?

It depends on the kind of adversity and whether they have support to cope with it.

Nat Kendall-Taylor, chief executive officer at the FrameWorks Institute and a senior fellow at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, said people typically think of adversity in two ways: Either kids are unbreakable – impossibly resilient – or adverse experiences damage them beyond repair. 

There are different classes of stress, he says, and outcomes depend on the kind of stress a child is experiencing.  

  • Positive stress is being challenged and pushed mildly out of your comfort zone, which leads to growth and development. That could be taking a difficult test or forming a new relationship with a safe, unfamiliar person.
  • Tolerable stress is when bad stuff happens, but it happens in the presence of a buffering, supportive relationship, like the one a child has with a parent.
  • Toxic stress is severe in its strength and chronic in its duration and happens without that buffering relationship. That's the kind of stress that can damage development. 

"A key variable or mediator is the buffer," he said.

How worried should I be about my kids' use of screens? 

If there's one thing parents can let go of their guilt about, experts say it's this. 

A Pew Research Center survey this summer found more than 71% of parents in the U.S. with children under 12 were concerned their child was spending too much time in front of a screen.

Worried about your kid’s screen time?: Parenting issues arise due to social media, tech

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children younger than 18 months (outside of video chatting), one hour of high-quality programming for children 2 to 5, and consistent limits for children 6 and older. 

Now, children are learning virtually, and screens have in many cases become de facto babysitters. That isn't ideal, experts say, but it is reality.

"As a parent myself, I am not following those rules, and I'm trying to be kind to myself for never following those rules," said Natalie Renew, director at Home Grown, a national collaborative of funders that works to improve access to home-based child care.

Kendall-Taylor says that while the way children are engaging with screens now isn't optimal, children are incredibly adaptive. 

"These biological systems are plastic," Kendall-Taylor said. "When kids go back to school and resume the kind of social relationships that they had with peers, that will have an effect on their development. Development is this open and contingent process. And that's to me the hopeful part."

How much does my well-being impact my child?

A caregiver's well-being is directly tied to their child's. Experts underscore a child's best buffer during the pandemic is a supportive parent. 

But staying mentally well can be difficult in the midst of so many stressors, and financial hardships add to the burden. Fisher, who is also director of the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development Early Childhood Household Survey Project (RAPID-EC Project), which is studying the effect of the pandemic on children 5 years old and younger, said the survey has found caregivers in lower-income households report experiencing more depression and anxiety. Those stressors affect a parent's ability to be available.

Maisha Lambiase, whose daughter is 8 months old.
Becoming a mother in and of itself can be challenging. Throw a pandemic into the mix and you instantly have to go into survival mode which in my case, I believe, has taken some of the emotion out of this process. I haven't cried since having Bowie Iman

RAPID's surveys show caregivers of young children are experiencing distress, financial hardship and loss of emotional support. Because the project's data is sequential, it's able to show a chain reaction. When a family is stressed about meeting basic needs, the next week they report more emotional distress, and the week after they report increases in their child's emotional distress.

"There's no question that if you can't buy food or you can't pay your rent, that you are experiencing the kind of stress that is going to be toxic to your children," Fisher said. 

How can I react to my child in a calm and loving way when I’m stretched so thin?

The question's premise is heartbreaking, Renew said, but it shows the kind of emotional sensitivity that's paramount for parents and their children to weather this time. 

Stressed parents can be distant and distracted, but children need emotional and physical closeness. Communication is key. 

"We know that talking builds young children's brains. This is also a good way to help your child understand why you may be frustrated or irritable or rushing or overwhelmed," she said. "I find that bedtime is a great time to reflect with my child and sometimes to apologize if I have been snappy or crabby that day. I am a big believer in saying sorry."

Is the pandemic causing my child permanent damage?

"There is no molecule that we can assay, or questionnaire that we can administer, that will say a hundred percent we can guarantee this shows you'd better get help, or a hundred percent this shows that things are going to be fine, no matter what," Fisher said.

But experts say that unless a child is experiencing toxic stress, they probably will recover well and may build resiliency that will serve them in the long run. 

"Even in the midst of all of this adversity, no child is lost," said Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy officer at nonprofit Zero to Three. "We never speak about children being irreparably damaged."

Kim Mauch, parent to a 9-year-old
My biggest concern for our daughter is how to keep her engaged with her friends in ways that are safe. It is so important for her social and emotional health to maintain relationships in the era of social distancing.

If you feel your child is doing OK, your gut is probably right. If you feel something is off, seeking support from a professional makes sense.

"Parents know their children, and parents have a sense of the vulnerability of their children," Fisher said. "If people have serious concerns about this, then seeking support makes total sense. If for no other reason, then for reassurance."

I'm working from home and I don't have child care. How can I do my work and not neglect my child? 

Quality matters more than quantity, experts say. Even if you can't give your child all the attention they crave, showing you are still present and available for important things can go a long way. 

That can mean taking a moment to talk about the picture your child just drew, or breaking from work to help with a question about school. 

"I work with mothers who are full-time employees and who have their children doing their work right beside them. And right in the middle of our conversation, the child comes up and says something and these moms turn and are responsive to them, and say, 'Oh yeah, here's what you need to do to get to that next step on your Zoom call.' Or, 'Yes, Molly, I love your hair like that,'" Dozier said.

How much does missing in-person school matter?

That depends on a few variables. In-person school is optimal, but children who have supportive caregivers at home and access to technology will likely fare well.

Experts are, however, worried about certain populations – especially low-income kids. Fisher pointed to data showing that during a normal school year, students of all income groups progress at a relatively similar rate. But achievement gaps widen over the summer, in part because poorer children have less access to enrichment opportunities and are more likely to experience instability.

The pandemic is exacerbating those structural inequalities. 

"It's different if you can't get access to a WiFi hotspot. It's different if you have six kids or three kids or two kids who are fighting over one tablet and a parent who needs it as well," Fisher said.

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I've always thought educational milestones were crucial. How concerned should I be about my child's proficiency in math and reading? 

Early findings based on three separate assessments suggest students have fallen behind more in math than in reading. 

One assessment, by the Northwest Education Association (NWEA) among roughly 5 million students in grades 1-8, analyzed how those children's growth from the past school year compared with kids in 2018 and 2019. The data excludes the many students who are not engaging with school right now, but it shows learning losses aren't as pronounced in reading as they are in math: The average student lost 5 to 10 percentile points in the latter and lost little in the former. Results from the other assessments reveal similar trends.

Bradley Gray, who has a 3 year old son.
Now we have to be the teacher, the parent, the friend. We have to do all these roles. ... It's hard to know if we're doing the right thing. You want to make sure your kids are getting the attention that they deserve

These findings, while imperfect, show parents are doing a relatively good job of helping keep their kids on track when it comes to reading. Helping children make their way through a book – versus, say, teaching them long division – may come more naturally to caregivers. 

Research also shows children better understand what they're reading when they are interested in its subject. The pandemic, experts say, is an opportunity to get to know your children's interests, to help them develop their passion for a variety of subjects. 

As for the math losses, experts suggest they're concerning but ultimately less of a priority than kids' mental health. Children, as Harden indicates, won't have a shot at catching up if they're not "psychologically and physically safe." 

How can I best support my child's virtual learning?

With little data on what works best for kids and teachers, parents may find themselves especially confused as they seek to keep their kids connected and engaged. 

Experts say every child has different virtual learning needs. Be patient.

Some general guidance, according to experts:

  • While this might not be possible for all families, try to dedicate a specific location in the home that can be free of clutter and distractions to support their ability to focus. 
  • Understand the need for 'brain breaks,' which can consist of short bursts of physical activity – such as a brief walk or snack. 
  • If your school allows for flexibility, encourage your child to focus on content that interests them most. 

"Encourage your child to build independence," said Thomas Murray, director of innovation at Future Ready Schools, Alliance for Excellent Education, "but don’t hesitate to check in and verify their progress."

If you feel as if your child is falling behind, bring those concerns to their teacher. 

"You do not have to go at this alone," Murray said.

How can I help my teen who has missed out on so much? 

The pandemic has been an especially rough time for adolescents. Young kids want to be around their parents. Teenagers, however, gravitate toward their peers. They want to be more independent. Instead, many are cooped up at home, separated from friends and missing milestones.

Jennifer Pfeifer, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who studies the transition from childhood through adolescence, says that while it's developmentally appropriate for teens to break from their parents, family support is essential at any age. It's stressful not to see your friends or to miss out on experiences you would otherwise be having, but parents can help their children navigate these losses. 

Validating your teen's feelings is important, as is encouraging them to think outside themselves. Adolescence, Pfeifer said, is marked by an awakening to the wider world. 

Lori Wathen, parent to an 18 year old with Down syndrome
One of my … concerns has been everything my child has missed out on this year. Not being able to participate in Special Olympics, summer camp, sports teams, cooking classes. We tried to do a few things virtually but that is really not the best engagement style for my son. This has been a hard year for families raising children with disabilities.

"If you are able to help them channel what would otherwise be sort of a derailment experience ... into finding new purpose or ways to contribute, that is so critical with adolescents," she said. "They have a need to contribute and a burgeoning ability to contribute."

That can include volunteering in their community or getting involved with an organization they're passionate about.

Is this normal adolescent angst or something more serious?

Pfeifer says that when clinical psychologists assess adolescents for depression and anxiety, they recognize that some of those symptoms increase normally around this time.

Concern is appropriate, she said, if those changes start to affect a teen's normal functioning. That can mean a child so depressed they aren't going to their Zoom classes, or who can't get out of bed.

The good thing is that during the pandemic, most parents are seeing their children more often, which allows them to observe their children more closely.

"Adolescents might be hiding some of that from you, but maybe that was a little easier when adolescents and their parents were not typically in the same space all of the time. So you might have this greater insight or at least exposure to adolescents than you would under normal circumstances," she said.

Parents should also create an environment where children feel comfortable disclosing, she said. That means listening to their feelings and concerns and being responsive by validating them and not judging them. Don't try to manipulate or control them; a parent needs to earn their child's trust. 

"Building that relationship will serve you well even after the pandemic," she said.

What is one thing I can do every day to help my child? 

Check in, Harden said. Children need space to open up. Put away the screens, put away the distractions, and talk to your child.

"Say, 'How are you doing?' With little people, you show them faces. 'Are you happy today?' Are you sad today?' And older children, you can have more sort of longer-term conversations, richer conversations about their emotional well-being," she said.

Routine is also important. Experts acknowledge this might sound tone-deaf in the middle of a pandemic, but science shows predictability is valuable across the entire span of development.

Kevin Kelleher, whose daughter is 14 months old
How do I deal with her being afraid of going into a building other than her home?. I worry about all of the experiences she isn't having.

Experts also stress the importance of self-care, since data shows parents' stress can trickle down to kids.

"Being responsive means that you need to be well," Renew said. "Responsivity is not just an endless bank of resource that you have. I mean, we all know that, right? When you're stressed out, do you think you're responsive? You're responsive probably in the ways that you shouldn't be."

Lastly, try to integrate something new and unique into your routine. The pandemic has been marked by sudden subtraction. It's worth using this moment to add something new. 

"In the midst of all of this chaos, carve out something that will be a positive," Jones-Taylor said.

What is the most important thing for parents to remember?

Almost all of the experts we spoke with said parents need to care for themselves so they can care for their children. Part of doing that is letting go of unproductive guilt and worry that their families will not recover.

"To the extent that you're OK, you can make it OK for your child," Fisher said. "Let go of all of the worrying. ... The science doesn't suggest that just some of these things – like the interruption in school – are going to necessarily leave a lasting footprint."

One of the most difficult tasks as parents is to separate what matters from what doesn’t. Parents want to know what will ripple and what will stick, what children can come back from and what they never will. Experts don't have every answer, but there is one thing they can say for certain.

"Parents have done amazing things. They educate their kids, they do their full-time jobs," Renew said. "What parents have been able to keep together under incredible adversity, it's really remarkable."

Early childhood education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from Save the Children. Save the Children does not provide editorial input.