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WATCH: Your questions on childhood trauma during the pandemic, answered

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of millions of children and their families by disrupting school, adding economic challenges and taking away sources of comfort and social connection. How has the prolonged period of social distancing affected kids and their caretakers? Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who founded Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, spoke with PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham and took viewer questions on the subject.

Watch the full conversation in the video player above.

‘Resilience is not something you will yourself to’

A stress-free life is actually “a very dangerous thing,” Shonkoff said, because it doesn’t teach a child how to manage themselves and their surroundings when times get tough, which they inevitably will. But too much stress can overwhelm a child or family’s emotional reserves, hurt their chances of being able to recover and expose them to life-long risk of adverse health outcomes.

There are three kinds of stress that can confront people:

  • Positive stress. This is the kind of stress that comes up when a child is forced to share their toys with a sibling or take turns on the slide at the playground. This type of stress teaches a child life lessons. It strengthens them.
  • Tolerable stress. When a loved one dies, that loss is deep, especially for children. But this example of tolerable stress is also a natural part of life. The presence of a nurturing adult caregiver secures that child, answers their questions in age-appropriate ways and helps them figure out how to move forward.
  • Toxic stress. When a child is exposed to chronic stress, such as abuse or neglect, over long periods of time and goes without the protection of an adult caregiver to serve as a buffer against those shocks, that can result in toxic stress. In children, this prolonged biological stress response can rewire their brain architecture and expose them to heightened risk of physical and mental health problems for the rest of their lives.

So how should parents help their children manage those feelings? Exercise, getting enough sleep and listening to music or dancing are all ways to reduce stress, Shonkoff said, but caregivers need to think about what makes sense for their specific child in every instance. Developing those coping skills and building strong relationships with a trusted and caring adult are key for kids to get through hard times.

“Resilience is not something you will yourself to, just on your own,” but is something that is “built over time,” Shonkoff said, through supportive, stable and nurturing relationships that instill a feeling of security and can model coping skills.

What to do when a child is struggling

During these difficult times, when a parent watches their child struggle more than normal and aren’t sure what to do next, Shonkoff said the best thing is to ask for help. He cautioned that the biggest hurdle is caregivers being afraid of seeking aid and just hoping that things will get better on their own.

With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, “it’s tougher in this environment [to get help,] but not impossible,” Shonkoff said, starting with seeking basic pediatric care.

COVID-19 may offer kids a chance to be ‘more resilient’

Children have survived much hardship over the course of human history, such as war, economic depression, famine, disasters and more, Shonkoff said. When supported by the consistent presence of a nurturing and caring adult, some studies suggest that children grow and become “more resilient and better,” he said. As a society, Shonkoff said, there is cause for much hope, and people should not feel “as if a whole generation is going to be lost.”

However, Shonkoff expressed deep concern about children and families who were already vulnerable before the coronavirus. That is why school closures, driven by uncontrolled spread of the virus, are particularly problematic because the classroom is often where a child’s needs are met, not only for education, but also for physical health, mental health, nutrition and more. It is also where a lot of changes– emotional or otherwise– are noticed by those who are adults outside of the home.

“Children who are having a lot of trouble can do well if their trouble is recognized and they’re provided the supports” they need, Shonkoff said.

In setting rules, align health considerations ‘with common sense’

So many parents are concerned about the heightened amount of screen time for their kids during the pandemic and what that might mean later in life. And caregivers should limit screen time for children, especially for those who are very young or easily fixated by tablets, phones or televisions, Shonkoff said. But he also said that science “is best when it aligns with common sense.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, Shonkoff asks parents to do what they need to “lower the tension and lower the stress” so their entire household can get through the day and beyond in a sustainable manner.

More importantly, caregivers need to make sure they are taking care of themselves so they can give their children what’s needed, Shonkoff said. He likened that relationship to being on an airplane and the need for putting on one’s own oxygen mask first before helping their child. If parents are overstretched with no respite in sight, they can’t help their kids, he said. More than anything, he urged parents to give themselves “a little bit more leeway.”

“The best parents do about 10 things wrong every day,” Shonkoff said, later adding that “raising children and meeting their needs is more an art than it is a science.”