The world is learning more about the uncommon but puzzling ways Covid-19 can show up in kids, keeping worried parents on the lookout for symptoms of the disease. We should also be concerned about how toxic stress brought on by the pandemic, or made worse by it, will affect children’s developing brains and bodies and their future health.
In millions of households, kids are experiencing an incredible amount of stress and anxiety. They’ve lost the stability and safety of schools and day cares, and with it their social connections to friends and teachers. They’re dealing with their own feelings of fear and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus — and there is no clear end in sight.
Meanwhile, they’re seeing parents and other caregivers struggle with the emotional and psychological distress of an unprecedented pandemic. With the unemployment rate at 11% and expected to stay high, millions of children are living through the aftermath of their parents’ loss of jobs and income.
Decades of studies tell us that the kind of trauma and stress many children are experiencing during the Covid-19 emergency has the potential to embed itself in children’s DNA, dramatically affecting their brains and other critical body systems and, as a result, their health across a lifetime. In my practice as a pediatrician working with children exposed to trauma, I have seen firsthand how families’ struggles can have indelible effects on children’s health and well-being.
We must act now to use the science of early childhood development to address the Covid-19-related stress in children’s and caregivers’ lives. If we don’t, the pandemic will in the short term put millions more children than before at risk for hunger, homelessness, abuse, and neglect. Over the long term, it will lead to more children with developmental delays, asthma, diabetes, mental illness, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other poor health outcomes.
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