There’s a consensus that the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns have created a mental-health crisis, as increasing numbers of children and adolescents suffer with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. It’s more accurate to say that Covid exacerbated a crisis that was already building.
Although children and teens need better mental-health care, the way to protect children’s mental well-being in the long term is strong parental care from an early age. Many stressors play a role in the current mental health crisis: academic and social pressure, unrealistic parental expectations, political and financial instability, the overpowering presence of social media and other technology, and the loss of community in favor of individualism.
Yet adversity will always exist. Previous generations faced poverty, unemployment, war and racial injustice. So why is the current adversity causing so much mental distress? A major reason is that we have devalued the work of parents. Mothers and fathers are less present for their children physically and emotionally, starting in early childhood and throughout adolescence, and this diminishes a child’s resilience and emotional fortitude throughout life, resulting in more mental-health problems in adolescence and adulthood.
Children aren’t born resilient but neurologically and emotionally fragile. Neuroscience research over the past 30 years has demonstrated how vulnerable an infant’s developing brain is to stress. Studies suggest that early maternal care has long-term effects on stress regulation and resilience, and that attachment patterns formed in early childhood are enduring and long-lasting.
Parents expect that children “will be fine,” as one patient told me when she planned on dropping her 6-week-old infant in daycare so she could return to her job. That’s a delusion. Children acutely need parents more than ever in the first three years, and daycare is usually a bad environment for this age group. The behavioral and emotional patterns children develop in early childhood are enduring, and if they are disrupted, that often causes mental-health disturbances down the line.
Expectations that children can withstand stress, separation and change from a very young age are a misunderstanding of how resilience to stress works. Building resilience to stress is a slow process of ensuring that children develop emotional security through the constant presence of their primary attachment figure, usually the mother, to withstand incremental amounts of frustration and loss.
As a society we have abandoned the care of children to institutional or group care, we have exposed them to early separation from parents’ physical and emotional presence, and we have prioritized financial success and careers over children. The government has promoted and pushed the importance of economic productivity and working outside the home and devalued nurturing. We have put less emphasis on caring for and being present for children while simultaneously expecting more from them academically, socially and in all of their extracurricular interests.
That’s why it’s a mistake to blame Covid for the children’s mental-health crisis. Covid merely magnified existing family dynamics. If a family was healthy and emotionally secure, Covid tended to bring it together. If a family was struggling, in conflict or dysfunctional, Covid magnified those difficulties.
Children are the barometers of how a family is doing. The antidote to childhood stress is more presence, attention and understanding from parents. That’s the foundation of resilience, and without it children may lack the emotional security and healthy family support they need in their school years and adolescence.
Ms. Komisar is a New York psychoanalyst and author of “Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matter” and “Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety,” forthcoming in October.
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Appeared in the June 17, 2021, print edition.