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What Have We Done to Our Kids?

As a pediatric occupational therapist, I can no longer remain silent about the psychological and social-emotional effects of COVID-19 on us and our children.
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March 3, 2022
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Raise your hand if you’ve had a difficult time self-regulating over the course of the last two years. In lay person’s terms, self-regulation means keeping your head cool and your anxiety low, given the chaos of your external environment. Among the consequences of the pandemic has been an astronomical surge in rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation for children and adults; if ever there was a time for our ability to self-regulate to be tested, this is it. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I can no longer remain silent about the psychological and social-emotional effects of COVID-19 on us and our children.

Imagine being a child during this pandemic, faced with unpredictable school closures, mask mandates, lessened social encounters, and equipped with only a child’s ability to self-regulate.

Now, imagine being a child with all the above, as well as Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD, anxiety, depression, and/or other special needs. If you thought you’ve had it tough, put yourself in the shoes of this child.

This is the population I work with five-seven days a week; I am a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in sensory processing and self-regulation. I got into this line of work because there is nothing I love more than teaching students how to self-regulate, but over the course of the past two years, my faith in our educators, parents, and so-called leaders has been shaken.

I am not writing this article to advance a political agenda, nor am I asserting myself as a public health expert. As a health professional, I understand better than most the importance of taking safety precautions.

However, I feel an ethical imperative to share the disturbing trends I have witnessed during this pandemic, and the effects of those trends on the children I work with every day. My angle is just one, and readers may not see what I see; they may not treat the conditions I treat; and they may not have the conversations with parents that I have.

Here is what I am seeing:

On a minute-by-minute basis, I see the effects of the pandemic in the children I treat in the following skill areas: self-regulation, emotional regulation, social, mental health, and speech. These skill areas go hand in hand with one another and feed each other – they are intertwined and there is no black and white way of looking at them. What’s more, they are rooted in sensory processing (i.e., sensory integration), which is the way our brains/nervous systems make sense of and respond to our environments.

Likely due to these skill areas being adversely affected, I see increased suicidal ideation, an uptick in antisocial behaviors, lack of eye contact, increased childhood depression and anxiety, decreased comprehension of social and emotional cues, more oppositional behaviors, and decreased emotional regulation. Although research on young populations is limited, current research already shows the psychological effects of the pandemic on adolescents’ mental health.

I see increased suicidal ideation, an uptick in antisocial behaviors, lack of eye contact, increased childhood depression and anxiety, decreased comprehension of social and emotional cues, more oppositional behaviors, and decreased emotional regulation.

I also see the mental health effects of the pandemic on caregivers, teachers, and therapists. The caregivers, teachers, and therapists I interact with are experiencing visibly higher rates of anxiety and depression than pre-pandemic. This is a problem not only for their mental health, but also for our children – because they rely on us for their own self-regulation. If we are stressed, burnt out, anxious and depressed, it has a huge effect on their development, progress in therapy, and in-school school performance.

This has created a huge conundrum for those in my line of work. We are tasked with protecting, teaching, and assisting the children who have been negatively impacted by this pandemic. But how can we expect our students to be able to self-regulate when many of their parents, teachers, and therapists aren’t able to maintain self-regulation themselves? Children are sponges; if their role models are burnt-out, fearful, angry, confused, and anxious… what are the implications for our children?

As you can see, we’ve got a twofold problem on our hands. Which requires a twofold solution.

First, we as adults and parents, educators and therapists, community leaders and pundits, have an obligation to improve our own emotional regulation and mental health. The struggles we see in our children often reflect the struggles in ourselves; our children learn by watching us, not by magic or osmosis. Regardless of your vaccination status, your belief in masks, or the news you consume, you have a duty to model self-regulation, kindness, sound mental health, and mature behavior for the kids who can’t. You must rise and be resilient for them.

Second, we must focus on helping our children process the disruption and chaos they are currently experiencing. This applies to all children and families, neurotypical or otherwise, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to speak specifically on behalf of the special-needs children I serve.

It is my informed, professional and clinical view that we need to think long and hard – longer and harder than we have thus far – about forced mask mandates in school. We must consider all children equally, of course, but it is especiallyvital for special-needs children to see the faces of their educators and therapists for their development. This is not my opinion; it is science. While mask mandates are intended to protect our children’s health, masking children who have sensory needs, social deficits, and mental health conditions does more harm than good.

May G-d help us teach and model self-regulation and resilience for this next generation, and stand up for all of the children that have been left behind.


Alexandra Yashar is a Los Angeles-based pediatric occupational therapist and the owner of Kickstart Therapy LA. She is a school consultant to local Jewish schools. Follow her on Instagram @kickstartla

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