The Kids Are Alright
Newsweek|September 03, 2021
SCIENTISTS HAVE FOUND A SURPRISINGLY SIMPLE CURE FOR THE POST-PANDEMIC BLUES — FOR CHILDREN AND THEIR PARENTS
Adam Piore

CLASSROOMS ARE OPENING THIS FALL, but don’t expect it to be anything like a return to pre-pandemic normal. These kids will be bouncing off the walls. They’ll squirm in their seats, chat while the teacher is talking, horse around in the hallways, talk back and have a harder time than usual in following rules.

“There will be millions of children returning to our classrooms this fall with an over-activated stress physiology,” says Nadine Burke Harris, a former pediatrician and expert on childhood stress who is now California’s surgeon general.

The last year and a half of COVID-19 craziness has had a cumulative effect on the kids, says Burke Harris. Come September, the sudden change in routine—from more than a year of home confinement and laptop learning to the social pressures of the typical classroom—is likely to unleash a flood of the stress hormone cortisol. Add to that the typical excitement of starting a new school year, even some typically quiet, well-behaved students will be anxious, sad, scared and angry, and these emotions may manifest in the classroom as difficulty paying attention, withdrawal, disruptive behavior and absences.

The potentially explosive first days of school will be a challenge for teachers—and for parents, too, in coping with the emotional and behavioral spillover at home. But it will also provide an opportunity to teach the kids more than multiplication tables and reading assignments. It will be an opportunity to impart a skill that will be important no matter where life takes them: how to bounce back from a difficult experience.

In the coming months, the actions of teachers—along with coaches, pastors, rabbis and, of course, parents—will be crucial in determining which children are able to emerge from the crucible of COVID having strengthened their resilience, an attribute that has been tested in all of us in recent months.

The proper response, Burke Harris wants the nation’s educators to know, is not to send the hyper ones to the principal’s office or exile them to sit in the corner. Instead, educators should try to help their students understand why their little bodies are revved up and help them develop strategies to calm down and adjust to the new normal.

That’s just one recommendation contained in a 438-page report, “Roadmap for Resilience,” issued by the California surgeon general last December. It lays out a blueprint for how educators and others should respond to signs of trauma and distress, COVID-related or otherwise, in the months ahead.

Burke Harris is not the only public health official focused on promoting that ineffable psychological quality that gives us the strength to bounce back from adversity, trauma or crisis. As the COVID-19 pandemic winds up its second summer, vaccination rates inch upward, and some of us take our first tentative steps towards normalcy, it remains an open question when the nation’s mental well-being will return fully to pre-pandemic levels, how long the traumas and anxiety of the past year and half will linger and when we’ll be able to let them go.

COVID-19’s legacy of death and destruction won’t make it easy—and, if rising caseloads and vaccine hesitancy are any guide, there’s still a long way to go. The disease killed more than 600,000 Americans, and left much collateral damage. During the pandemic, an additional 90,000 people died of drug overdoses—a 50 percent increase from pre-COVID levels. Social isolation, economic uncertainty and fear have worn us all down. And though preliminary numbers suggest suicide rates may actually have gone down—a sole bright spot that defied all predictions—many people are still hurting.

According to a report from the Kaiser Family Health Foundation, 41 percent of Americans reported depression or anxiety in January 2021, up from 11 percent in 2019. In another survey, from October 2020, 31 percent of parents said their child’s mental or emotional health was worse than before the pandemic. Many kids were irritable, clingy and fearful and had poor appetites and trouble sleeping. Another survey showed that 46 percent of teens had signs of new or worsening mental health conditions since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

The good news is that in recent decades, scientists and psychologists have made great strides in understanding why some people are more resilient than others. What they’ve learned is encouraging. Resilience, they’ve found, is not a static quality. We can teach ourselves—and our kids—to become more resilient.

The Neuroscience of Resilience

ALTHOUGH PHILOSOPHERS, AUTHORS AND ARMCHAIR psychologists have speculated for centuries on why some people bounce back from adversity quicker than others, it was a 21-year-old graduate student who kick-started the science of resilience. When Martin Seligman arrived in the lab of his supervisor Dick Solomon at University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s, he found that the other researchers in the lab were flummoxed over a problem. The team had been applying electric shocks to the feet of dogs through a metal-plated floor to test how long it would take the pooches to learn to jump over a short barrier to escape the shock. But many of the dogs were not cooperating.

Rather than jumping the barrier, about two-thirds of the dogs gave up after a few shocks, laying down on the floor of the cage and refusing to move. Seligman studied the dogs and eventually coined a term to describe their behavior: learned helplessness. “The animals had learned that nothing they did mattered and, therefore, didn’t try to do anything,” he says.

Seligman would spend the rest of his career studying not just what it was that caused two-thirds of the dogs to give up, but why the remaining third seemed to be immune from defeat, able to hang in long enough to solve the problem and jump to escape the painful shock.

In the decades that followed, Seligman showed that learned helplessness applied to people, too. He exposed people to an inescapable stressor, such as noise or shock. He found that two-thirds of them entered a state of learned helplessness and many also exhibited symptoms of what would later be called clinical depression. Using questionnaires, Seligman and his team began to hit on an intuitive but powerful answer that explained how the remaining one-third were able to persevere: The most resilient people, he discovered, were optimists.

Since then, neuroscientists have confirmed this assessment by uncovering the brain circuits associated with both psychological resilience and learned helplessness.

Eric Nestler, a neuroscientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, found that mice subjected to stress developed behavioral abnormalities analogous to human depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, which manifested as “anhedonia”—an inability to derive pleasure from sugar water, high-fat foods, the exercise wheel, play, sex and other things that would normally give them pleasure. A smaller group of mice seemed to quickly regain their interest in these delights.

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