When New York writer Nora Zelevansky learned her six-year-old daughter was playing “hotel restaurant,” the details surprised her. “She said that everyone needed to be laid off, that she was going to get fired too, that there wouldn’t be enough money, and that one of her stuffed animals was hoarding food,” Zelevansky says. “Usually her stuffies are donning capes to save the world or dressed up for birthday parties. They’re not getting fired from their jobs.”
Parents are understandably concerned about the impacts of COVID-19 on their children’s own mental health. They have good reason. Kids already have a hard enough time regulating feelings because the frontal lobe (the part of the brain that controls rational thought) develops through adolescence. But research also shows that trauma—like intensified fear surrounding a life-changing event such as the pandemic—can affect brain formation, leading to problems with regulating emotions later in life.
“Studies are starting to show that when we’re more positive, it increases interconnectivity between nerves in the brain,” says Ashok Shimoji-Krishnan, a child and adolescent psychiatrist for Kaiser Permanente in Factoria, Washington. That means kids’ brains work better when they’re thinking positively. So kids who are in a positive frame of mind are more able to handle, say, a tricky distance-learning assignment.