As we welcome children and teens back to school this fall, we, as parents, educators, and trusted adults, will be most helpful if we remain aware of the myriad changes that children and teens have experienced over the past year and a half, and the signs and symptoms of possible stressors.
As stay-at-home orders were put in place and the world shut down, we all felt a new sense of isolation. Many experienced job loss and economic hardship. Many children and teenagers felt this stress within their own families, as well as the general stress of uncertainty we all have been experiencing.
As parents, educators, and other trusted adults, we have been doing our best to care for children and teens, but sometimes, stress can lead to losing control, substance misuse and/or crossing boundaries. According to the Centers for Disease Control, heightened stress, school closures, loss of income, and social isolation resulting from [the] pandemic have increased the risk for child abuse and neglect. This abuse may be emotional, physical or sexual, and may happen in-person or online. Less supervision of kids' internet use can also be a consequence of parental stress.
Concerningly, reports of online sexual abuse, particularly “online enticement,” (communicating with someone believed to be a child online for sexual purposes), increased 97.5% over reports from 2019. This type of abuse includes “sextortion,” a crime in which a child is manipulated or coerced into sending nude or otherwise explicit images of themselves to the offender. These images are often used as blackmail to solicit additional sexual content, control, money, etc.
Thankfully, most children were not experiencing abuse while at home over the past year, but there are many more mundane, though still important, concerns that children and youth are experiencing as they return to school, many of which adults alike can relate to! Children may feel anxious being around other people as the country continues to experience the effects of COVID. Similarly, teens may feel awkward and unsure how to behave with peers, having mainly “hung out” online and not in person.
It is vital that adults carefully observe the stress levels of the children and teens in our lives. Some questions to consider:
Do they seem generally ok? Or does something seem “off” or concerning?
Are they nervous, anxious, angry, tired or sad?
Are they engaging in self-harming behaviors like cutting or restricting/binging/purging food?
Are they afraid of others or unable to concentrate?
Are they having trouble sleeping?
Are they wearing very baggy clothes or clothes that seem inappropriate for their age?
Is a young child displaying new sexual behaviors in public?
Reactions to trauma can take many forms and look very different depending on the individual child or teenager. If a behavior is concerning you, take time to let the person know you are there for them and are available to talk. Some people may open up quickly, while many will not. Be sure to respect the other person’s boundaries when offering your support. For example, do not assume a hug will be welcomed or comfortable for all. Remember to always ask before you touch a child or young person regardless of the intention or type of touch–this helps children and youth feel empowered to assert their own boundaries for their body and establish an important sense of mutual respect in the relationship.
It’ll likely take years to fully understand the impact the pandemic has had on youth, but here and now, we can each make a positive difference on how well and how soon children and teens who have been harmed will recover.
For support/guidance in Vermont, call the Vermont Parents Helpline at 1-800-CHILDREN.
For suspected online exploitation, report it to NCMEC’s CyberTipline: report.cybertip.org.
To report suspicion of child abuse and/or neglect, call Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD.