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Changes in learning environments may affect children’s mental health, experts say

Published: Jan. 5, 2022 at 11:20 AM EST
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(CNN) - The physical impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S., but there has also been a more subtle impact in the mental health of children as they navigate their way back to in-person learning.

Like other families, the Kitleys in Chicago were thrilled when last fall their four children could finally go back to school, but halfway through the school year, there have been bumps in the road.

“That transition back to school has been difficult, mostly for my youngest child, who felt this sense of safety and security from the age of seven until eight and a half, and then needing to go back to school,” Kelley Kitley said.

Kitley says her daughter got used to the comfort of having mom and dad around all the time, but suddenly, everyone was back in school.

“There wasn’t a gradual transition,” she said.

Kitley is a therapist and also sees the tension in her patients.

“They are feeling increased anxiety around just how to be and communicate with people, and build friendships and being able to feel comfortable in their environment,” she said.

Last month, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a 54-page advisory outlining how the pandemic has had an unprecedented negative impact on the mental health of children.

One global study found that symptoms of youth depression and anxiety has doubled.

“I’m so concerned about our children because there is an epidemic, if you will, of mental health challenges that they’ve been facing,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said.

Kitley says an empowerment group for girls that she started has helped the kids.

Atlanta-area counselor Teshia Stovall Dula says that when children feel overwhelmed by the transition back to school, she offers them a safe space.

“They’ll often come to my office just to get a break from the noise, and I was very surprised by that - that they needed to come and get a break from the noise,” Dula said.

Her advice to parents: Remember that if your children seem immature for their age, there is a reason. They missed out on more than a year of development with their peers.

“I mean, my 12-year-olds, they still act so young. They’re more like elementary school kids,” Dula said.

She also says to be patient with your child as they transition from one way of life to another.

“Their world was turned upside down. As adults we are able to bounce back quicker usually, faster, but for them it’s gonna take a little more time,” she said.

Many children have also faced uncertainty about their learning environments as they switch between in-person and remote learning when COVID-19 surges.

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