It’s called ‘the pandemic wall’ and it mostly affects children, psychologists say
It's been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began and kids are hitting a breaking point that many developmental psychologists have coined "the pandemic wall."
The pandemic wall refers to cognitive overload, said Jaime Arlia, vice president of Children and Family Services at CarePlus NJ. Kids have hit the point where their bodies and brains just can't take it anymore. They're exhausted and worn out. They're taking the brunt of this because their capacities were limited as it was, she said.
Pediatric emergency room visits for mental health have increased sharply, with the CDC reporting a 31% increase in visits for children between ages 12 and 17 from March to October when compared to the same period in 2019. There was also a 24% hike in psychiatric emergency room visits for kids between ages 5 and 11 over the same time frame.
The pandemic wall can lead to loss of interest. Kids are tired of doing school online and they're tired of not seeing their friends. They feel like they don't have any control because no matter what they do, how good they are, how much they comply, do their homework and log into school on time, they're just not getting the reward that they usually are getting such as playing outside or spending time with friends, she added.
With a lot of kids, there is oppositionalism, said Arlia. That's saying "no" just to say "no." There's disinterest in school, which has led to a drop in grades and kids getting into more trouble. Parents are getting emails and phone calls about their kids not logging in or not being on camera.
There's also been a lot of social anxiety with the pandemic wall, said Arlia. This is a result of being on camera with remote schooling and staring at themselves all day long, wondering if others are judging them.
Arlia said Zoom fatigue and screen burnout are also common with the pandemic wall. Kids are constantly evaluating themselves because they're on screen and on camera all day long. Especially with kids entering adolescence or the teen years, they have what is called "invisible audiences" where they perceive everyone is staring at them, noticing every freckle or pimple on their faces or even a hair out of place.
With some children, the pandemic wall has progressed to more of a diagnosable condition. Arlia said anxiety and depression could be bad enough that they would receive a diagnosis. At that point, kids could be experiencing suicidal thoughts, or turning to substances like alcohol and drugs to numb those feelings of hopelessness.
She said parents should look for extreme changes in eating and sleeping habits and no attempts at socialization. If kids start talking about helplessness or hopelessness as they look toward the future, it may be time to seek professional help.
It's also a good idea for parents to establish routines and predictability. Celebrate things in life with kids. Go out to breakfast. Talk to them. Arlia said it's important to listen to their kids and validate their feelings. Talk about what they look forward to, find out what they would like the future to be so they have some hope.
"We know things will get better," Arlia said.
Any extreme symptoms like oppositionalism, violence and failing in school needs appropriate medical health care. In New Jersey, there is free 24/7 access to children's mobile response and stabilization through the state.
"Parents should be willing to ask for help if they need it because it's better to step in now and get the professional guidance before things get worse," Arlia said.