Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences
Interview Dr. Brian P. Godor and Dr. Ruth Van der Hallen

Impact of COVID-19 on children depends on family context and intrapersonal characteristics

August de Richelieu

How resilient you are and how you cope with problems and difficulties depends on many things. Psychologist Dr. Brian P. Godor and Dr. Ruth van der Hallen have a lot of experience with research focused on adolescents, coping, and resiliency. Currently they are investigating coping and resiliency in young adults during this COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, this latest research project is focusing on post-traumatic growth; how these young adults may become stronger through the experience of COVID-19 and all the changes it has brought to everyday life. 

What consequences can the corona crisis have for young people?

Brian: “This can range from very little to life changing. If a child loses a loved one, then this can be difficult to deal with. However, there are children that are fairly resilient and that allows them to deal with difficult events better. We know that not being resilient or not coping in an adequate way could lead to many potential issues. These can range from poor academic performance, unwanted behaviours (drugs, and sexual activity) and some studies have shown long term effects such as lower incomes and more mental health issues in the future.”

Ruth: “Any large-scale crisis, like the current COVID-19 global pandemic, will bring about emotional, physical and financial stressors for all parties involved, children included. For children, there is a direct impact to consider: children are impacted by the measures that are taken, like school closing, hobbies that get cancelled, but there is also an important indirect impact to consider: overall levels of stress and anxiety within a child’s family context are likely to exceed typical levels and influence the child. In addition, whereas most adults and elderly know what a virus is or how infection diseases work, for children a “virus” remains a very vague and complicated threat to grasp.”

Which young people are hit hardest by the corona crisis and why?

Brian: “It depends on which aspect you focus on. If you choose to focus on the lock down and having to stay at home, thenthe initial  family situation, such as how big is the house, how many people live there,  wifi, etc. could create situation that is more difficult to deal with than other children. But I think it is not productive to look at how one could suffer more, a sort of comparing pain perspective. Kids are dealing with a potential difficult situation. I think we need to come from a perspective that there is a large risk that our society is now facing, how can we help children deal with this in a way that works for them.”

Ruth: “Both family context (availability of the parents, financial stress, emotional well-being) and intrapersonal characteristics of the child (like coping skill, resiliency, temperament) are at play and will influence to what extent kids are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some kids will struggle, feel like the pandemic is a crisis with no end in sight, and others will thrive, able to grow above and beyond.”

Which factors influence how resilient you are?

Brian: “There are several models in the academic literature, but most come down to a combination of protective factors and risks factors.  Protective factors are notions such as optimism, self-efficacy, social support, and trust. The main risk factors for childhood resiliency center around emotional regulation, such as how long does it take a child to cool down once upset.”

What are some ways children cope?

Ruth: “When we talk about coping, what we are referring to is how one deals with problems and difficulties. An important aspect of adequate coping behavior is flexibility – different situations or challenges need different approaches in order to adequately deal with them. One important way for us to cope is to seek social support, either to vent, so seek comfort or seek advice. Most children will look to friends or parental figures to share their distress, ask for hugs or comfort or advice on what to do. Another important way for us to cope is to problem solve, to brainstorm possible solutions, weigh the pro’s and con’s and come up with a plan of “attack”. Stuck at home on a rainy afternoon, i.e., what creative solutions will a child come up with to keep itself busy? Obviously, for young children this is more challenging than for older children, as the capacity to generate ideas and weigh pros and cons develops over time.

A third important way for us to cope, is by avoiding difficult situations or any feelings or thoughts linked to that situation. Avoidance is often considered “bad” coping, like ignoring a tooth ache usually doesn’t solve anything in the long-term, however, in the short-term, avoidance shouldn’t be considered bad coping per se. If children find themselves getting upset while watching the news or when video calling with friends because they can’t meet face-to-face, doing less of those activities (i.e., avoiding those activities), distract themselves with activities they do enjoy, can be an adequate way to minimize the stress and anxiety.”

How big will these consequences be over time?

Brian: “As stated above depending on the child’s current coping strategies and level of resilience, it can range from (worst-case scenario) long-term unemployment, drug addiction, lower wages all the way to (best-case scenario) children actually growing and thriving due to this crisis. This last concept is call post-traumatic growth. Some children can take the current struggles and become stronger and grow.”

What does it take to reach and assist these young people in particular?

Brian: “A strong focus on coping and resiliency programs for children and adults. If we want to create a society that can deal better with future negative events, then active coping and resiliency programmes are needed. These specific skills (coping and resiliency) need to be explicitly taught, as they cannot be assumed to be learned as a side-effect of regular schooling or other support programmes. The academic literature is quite clear, “these skills need to be taught, they cannot be just caught.”

Ruth: “School or after-school programmes are ideal settings to teach about coping and resilience. While the current pandemic poses a huge burden on typical educational programmes, it actually provides us with an important opportunity to put coping and resilience on the agenda. All of us are impacted by the current pandemic one way or another As such, this could pose an important teaching moment where we can talk about how each of us deals with the current circumstances, learn about our own preferred coping strategies, learn how to best counter difficulties or build up our resiliency and make sure we can tackle the next hurdle.”

Is there anything the young people themselves can do to limit the negative impact?

Brian: “I think looking at the building blocks for coping and resiliency, it is important children seek social support, a trusted person to talk to, limit their exposure to negative input (i.e., media), set daily goals and try to stick to them, find activities that they can do so that they can have fun and be successful (i.e. making an online challenge for their friends).”

Are there opportunities for young people during this crisis and if so, which ones?

Brian: “Yes, if some of the above activities become habits, such as making goals connecting to others, then these are the beginnings of the building blocks for resiliency. For example, in my work with the Scottish football club, Hibernian, they are teaching children who are at home to use and implement small goals for each day. This is a great opportunity to help these children today, but if it becomes a habit, these children can be more successful in the future.”

Ruth: “Facing a struggle, but coming out the other end, is an important experience. If kids were able to deal with weeks and weeks of COVID-19, whatever way or however successful they dealt with it, it is important for them to realize their own strength in that. “I managed, even when things got hard”. Next time a challenge or negative event presents itself, they might remember how they dealt with corona, what ways to cope worked for them and what didn’t, and feel empowered by their earlier successes.”

 

Researchers

BPG:  Dr. Brian P. Godor is an Assistant Professor in Educational Sciences at Erasmus University Rotterdam,. His teaching emphasizes learning theories, teacher competencies, and assessment. His research focuses on psychosocial development of children specifically resiliency theory and  sports-based positive-youth-development.

RVH: Dr. Ruth Van der Hallen is an assistant professor of Clinical Psychology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and a practicing psychodynamic psychologist/psychotherapist. In her research, she focuses on coping, trauma and the aftermath of trauma.

 

Vital Cities and Citizens

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens, Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes:

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Britt Boeddha van Dongen