Children are bearing much of the burden of the corona crisis. They are afraid, listless, bored and helpless – and many are developing psychological scars. What can be done?
By Markus Becker, Susanne Beyer, Silke Fokken, Florian Gontek, Maik Großekathöfer, Barbara Hardinghaus, Milena Hassenkamp, Armin Himmelrath, Matthias Kaufmann, Maren Keller, Heike Klovert, Beate Lakotta, Nike Laurenz, Vivian Micks, Ann-Katrin Müller, Bettina Musall, Christian Reiermann, Sophia Schirmer, Elke Schmitter und Katja Thimm
Four siblings, three boys and a girl, all teenagers, are sitting at the living room table together with their mother in Weissenhorn, a town near the city of Ulm, with wood burning in the fireplace and two cats prowling around. Two of the boys are wearing caps, the daughter has braces and is tapping something into her smartphone. Having four teenagers under one roof is complicated enough in normal times. But in a pandemic, it’s an even greater challenge.
“My children don’t have any room to breathe because of the corona measures,” says their mother Sylvia, who asks that their family name not be used in this article. She is divorced and her oldest son is studying at university in Munich. Sylvia says her children have become lethargic because of the lack of social contact. Having to just hang around is driving them crazy. In the beginning, the siblings played cards or chess together, but not anymore.
“Instead, it’s extreme internet consumption,” she says. “They’re fleeing into their own ideal world. I think it’s a protective reaction.” She says the kids have begun fighting over little things and sometimes get loud and aggressive with each other, almost coming to blows.
Leonard, 19, plays soccer three times a week and coaches a youth team. But he can’t do any of that during the lockdown. He’s also the drummer in a death metal band called Haunted Cemetery, but the last time they practiced together was in March. They had concerts planned, and 200 hats and sweatshirts they planned to sell to fans are just lying around. He has a computer and a gaming chair in his room, with empty candy packages lying on the floor.
Ferdinand will turn 17 in January. The 12th grader is a gymnast, but all practice has been called off because of the lockdown. He is basically in favor of the corona rules, but he wonders if they all really make sense. “I lead a life on the edge,” he says, meaning he pushes the envelope. But he doesn’t do things like meeting up with friends in a construction trailer anymore. Instead, he often plays basketball with three others on the playground of the primary school, which is actually forbidden, since it’s more than two households. “Fortunately, the police aren’t interested when they drive by,” he says.
Cosmas, 15, plays cello and piano in the school band. But their Christmas concert has been cancelled, as has the one-week concert tour to South Tyrol in Italy. He says he misses going to parties and hanging out with friends. He spends two to three hours online each day playing “Among Us” or “Clash of Clans.” “What else am I supposed to do,” he asks? He wants to spend New Year’s Eve with his buddies, five or six people. If the corona measures don’t permit it, he says, ” then I’m going to have to violate them.”
Lisa, 16, is in the 10th grade. Their formal dance got cancelled, as did the class trip to Berlin right before it was supposed to begin. She’s disappointed. “It’s not like we can just reschedule for later,” she says. The stress of school is also getting on her nerves. She has had to write six different papers since returning from the two-week fall break in October.
Potentially Serious Consequences
What impact is the corona crisis having on children and adolescents? With studies pointing to serious and long-term consequences, researchers are sounding the alarm. Politicians seem unsure how to address the issue, even as pressure is increasing for Germany’s chancellor and state governors to factor it in more than they have.
Parents of today no longer play the same role of authority figure as they did 40 years ago. Still, children also can’t be left with the feeling that they have to pick up the slack on issues their parents’ generation have been unable to manage. That was the accusation made last year by the children and adolescents who took part in the Fridays for Future movement.
Indeed, the pandemic has made it more apparent than ever that the way of educating and raising children we conceived for a modern world is no longer working today.
In the middle class, two primary responses to the confusing modern world have developed: Over-protection, through “helicopter” parenting, in which as little worry and responsibility is imposed on children as possible. The other has been referred to as “spreadsheet” parenting, which focuses on over-achievement. The idea is that of developing as many talents as possible – foreign languages, musical instruments and sports – so that children are fit for a life full of competition.
But the pursuit of over-achievement has been blocked by the pandemic. Hobbies, travel, and pretty much all extracurricular activities are only possible in part or not at all. And far from being able to get the best out of students, schools are instead struggling with digital learning. Plus, shielding children from the worries of the world at large doesn’t work either in a situation where everybody is facing the same concerns. The crisis has also exposed the Achilles heel of overprotection: The idea that adults can handle everything.
So, now that the methods we have pursued until now aren’t working, what next?
Taking Its Toll
The first studies about the state of adolescents’ health are now available. And the findings are far from consistent: Some studies have identified serious consequences while others are more sanguine.
A study by the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE), for which a research team led by psychologist Ulrike Ravens-Sieberer interviewed around 1,000 children and adolescents between 11 and 17 years of age and more than 1,500 parents online in May and June, shows that the pandemic is indeed taking its toll on children and adolescents.
According to UKE’s Copsy Study, 71 percent of the children felt psychologically burdened: They were more anxious, more easily irritated or depressed and more worried. A full 39 percent said the lack of social contact has led to a deterioration in their relationship with their friends. And 65 percent said their experience with school and learning had become more strenuous than before. A quarter of children and adolescents and one-third of parents reported that they argue more often than before the crisis.
“We expected that the psychological well-being of children to deteriorate during the crisis,” says Ravens-Sieberer. “The fact that the results are so clear, however, came as a surprise to us as well.” The mental stress is also having a physical effect: According to the survey, children and adolescents suffer more frequently from problems such as trouble falling asleep, nervousness, headaches and stomach aches.
The Hamburg-based researchers compared their results with a representative, nationwide study conducted before the crisis. They found that the proportion of children and adolescents with a low quality of life among 11- to 13-year-olds has risen from just under 8 percent to around 41 percent, and among 14- to 17-year-olds from 17 percent to 39 percent. The proportion of children and adolescents with mental disorders has risen from around 7 percent to almost 27 percent among 7- to 10-year-olds.
One place to get information about the problems children, teenagers and parents are experiencing is a special national hotline set up for the purpose. Volunteers are available on the hotline to talk about anything that might be bothering the callers.
Compared to last year, the hotline for parents has seen a 60 percent increase in the number of calls for advice. An online counselling service aimed at children and adolescents has received 20 percent more inquiries this year. Anna Zacharias of the organization that operates the hotline says she has never seen an increase like this in the 12 years she has been working there.
Wolfgang Kölfen was the chief physician of the clinic for children and adolescents in Mönchengladbach, Germany, for many years and is now the vice president of the Professional Association of Pediatricians (BVKJ). “The pandemic will have a lasting impact,” he says. “We can’t yet begin to grasp what the consequences will be.”
Children, he says, see themselves as being part of a confusing and threatening situation. “They live with the feeling that they are a danger to grandma, that they could even cause the death of their grandma in the worst case. It’s hard to fathom what this means for a 4-, 5- or 6-year-old child.”
If parents aren’t particularly good at explaining things to their children, it can massively exacerbate the potential stress. “The effects can be dramatic,” he says. “It can leave deep scars on a child. We pediatricians are therefore urging adults to stop stirring up this fear.”
The Political Challenge
Two weeks ago, when Angela Merkel’s Chancellery introduced a draft of new rules calling for children’s social contacts be limited to a single friend, for masks be required in schools, for class-sizes be halved and for minimum distances be observed, the governors of Germany’s 16 states didn’t want to go along with it. Manuela Schwesig, the governor of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, called the proposal “disproportionate.” Lower-Saxony Governor Stephan Weil said: “As long as we can justify it, we want to prevent children and young people from having to spend half of their time at home.” With the exception of Bavaria, the governors of all German states held the same view.
Last Wednesday, the governors and the chancellor agreed that children under the age of 14 would continue to be exempt from social contact restrictions. The federal and state governments’ top priority is making sure that daycare centers and schools can remain open. But there was one point on which the governors were unable to reach agreement with Chancellor Merkel: At what point would the growing number of infections mean that stricter contact rules would also have to be applied to schools? Merkel had sought a lower number, but in the end, a somewhat vague agreement was reached on an “incidence of significantly more than 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants” per week. Pupils in those regions from 7th grade on are now required to wear a mask.
In areas in Germany where there are more than 200 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants a week, schools from 8th grade and above are required to switch to hybrid teaching, meaning that only half the class is allowed to attend in person while the other is connected digitally, with the exception of students in their final year of school. The Christmas holidays are also to start earlier this year, on Dec. 19. In addition, schools are planning on using more coronavirus rapid antigen tests.
The politicians had already eliminated the proposed rule that students could only socialize with a single person. But Heike Riedmann, a mother and the co-founder of the new parent’s initiative Families in Crisis, argues that even just proposing that rule is indicative of how little politicians consider the needs of children. “If every child has to choose one friend, then some child will almost certainly fall by the wayside and feel excluded.”
The alliance was formed by several parents in the spring after the state and federal governments announced the first loosening of the shutdown, but “only wasted half a sentence” on daycare centers and schools. Most of them remained closed, even as measures were relaxed.
During the first wave of the coronavirus, it really did seem as though children and adolescents were an afterthought in the decision-making process. It started with the fact that German Family Minister Franziska Giffey wasn’t included when the federal government’s corona crisis team negotiated the most important measures. Ultimately, the government followed the advice of the German National Academy of Science Leopoldina to wait longer before reopening daycare centers. Swimming pools and beer gardens were allowed to open before most daycare centers were.
Afterward, Giffey did manage to push through her proposal of a child bonus to parents, a one-off payment of 300 euros as part of the coronavirus economic stimulus package. Berlin also extended a program that saw the government paying the salaries of parents who couldn’t continue to work because they had to care for their children from six to 10 weeks. The federal government also provided an additional 1 billion euros for the expansion of daycare.
But many felt the child bonus had really just been a form of hush money. It did little for socially weak families, and better-off families were more concerned about childcare for their children and the absence of educational opportunities. All in all, from the point of view of many, the one-off payment was really just one thing: expensive.
Giffey repeatedly said that she was unable to do much more because the states have the competency for most education-related policy and measures. But critics say Giffey should have made sure that children and adolescents played a greater role in the government’s negotiations.
The federal education minister didn’t exactly cut a good figure either. The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs was in a permanent crisis, with 16 state ministers struggling to find common ground in their efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. It could have been Federal Education Minister Anja Karliczek’s moment to shine – she could have pointed things in the right direction, even if the states are primarily responsible for education policy. Instead, she gave an endless slew of new recommendations in interviews and wound up turning students, parents and teachers against her.
One reason for the back-and-forth over the policy was the lack of scientific studies on the question of how infectious children are. It is now assumed that children do indeed play a role in the spread of infections. Although children often appear to be relatively asymptomatic, the biology of infections in children is likely to be similar to that in adults. This is especially true for young people in secondary schools, although definitive results are still lacking.
More Important than Ever
These days, it should come as no surprise to politicians if they encounter significant criticism when they err on family and education policy. The role of children in society has become important than ever – never before in history have they been so intensively observed, never before has so much attention been paid to their health and education.
For thousands of years, childhood was short, and adolescents were considered full workers at young ages that would be unfathomable today. The modern idea of childhood only began developing from the 17th century onward. It was accompanied by an idealization of the child: Children were often considered vulnerable beings with a right to develop freely – a more perfect embodiment of what it means to be human than fallible adults.
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau produced one of the founding documents of this idea with his book “Émile: Or On Education.” For many proud parents, the Fridays for Future movement, with its icon Greta Thunberg, is the current political embodiment of that vision. “Growing individualism” is how historian Martina Winkler describes this development in her book “Childhood History.” She writes: “Changed divorce laws, new fields of activity for women and the improved availability of contraceptives radically changed the realities in and thinking about families. Family became a consciously chosen way of life and children, at least theoretically, plannable. The birth rate went down and the age of first-time mothers increased. All these factors were the prerequisites for the talk of the ‘project child’ or ‘optimized childhood’ so well known in the 21st century.”
It’s no longer enough in middle-class circles to just have a healthy offspring who will be capable of handling life. Only the happy child casts a good light on its parents.
First, though, you have to have a sufficient budget to be a helicopter parent. The pandemic has shown all too clearly how uneven the starting lines can be. Suddenly, the old talk of “educationally disadvantaged” and “educationally advantaged” families has returned. The pandemic has indeed exposed a two-tier society.
Forty-two-year-old Thomas von Thenen and his daughter live in a three-room apartment in Rheinberg, northwest of Germany’s Ruhr region. The 13-year-old goes to a comprehensive school and is dependent on special support because she suffers from dyslexia. The father works in a corner store.
He says the extended school closures in recent months have changed his daughter. She told him, he says, that she wasn’t able to become so independent and self-sufficient so quickly. “I was torn: Should I stop working? But we depend on the money I earn from the corner store. I couldn’t stay with her.”
Almost 3 million children in Germany live in poverty and the country is home to 27 Arche (Arks), organizations that specialize in child poverty. Pastor Bernd Siggelkow founded the Arche in Berlin in 1995, and he says things have become “a lot tighter” for socially disadvantaged families during the pandemic. Before the outbreak of the virus, around 350 children would visit the Arche in Berlin’s Hellersdorf district. Now, there are only around 150, because the size of the groups had to be reduced. And children are only allowed to come here once a week.
Siggelkow says he has the impression that online bullying is increasing massively. Some children have forwarded messages to him because they didn’t know how to deal with them. Kids would write things to each other like: “The next time I see you, I’m going to kill you.” Siggelkow says stuff like that is the product of boredom, but he also hears other things like: “I want to die.”
When he then starts chatting with the boys and girls, he usually learns that it’s not suicidal thoughts driving the children – they just don’t know any other way of expressing their suffering.
The current situation is especially difficult for children with disabilities. Many never really got back to their normal school environments after the first lockdown, says Ute Thyen, director of the Clinic for Child and Youth Medicine in Lübeck.
She relates the case of a single mother with four children, including a teenage son with Down syndrome. She says the son has severe mental retardation and significant behavioral problems. The mother was able to get by as long as he was able to go to special education. But then the school closed, and when it opened again, he couldn’t go because the assistant who accompanies him to school hadn’t been provided with masks.
“Ultimately, the boy became very aggressive at home,” says Thyen. “His older brother had wanted to start his vocational training, but he postponed it so that he could at least provide his mother with some support. Of the two younger sisters, one is chronically ill.” The family had essentially been left completely in the lurch. “We then admitted the boy to our hospital. He was provided with medication so that his behavior would at least improve enough where we could even get him back on a bus again.”
How to Approach the Youngest Ones
Age also plays an important role in how children and adolescents are experiencing the pandemic. It’s a recent Wednesday morning, and the children of the Pestalozzi Foundation’s Baumhaus daycare center in Hamburg are sitting together on the carpet in the morning circle, boys and girls between three and five years of age. On Wednesdays, they would normally be presenting a favorite book, but now they’re answering questions about the coronavirus.
Who here knows what the coronavirus is?
Frieda, 5, answers immediately: “A virus!”
Katinka, 5: “You always have to keep your distance!”
Maximilian, 4: “I know a lot of people die from it.”
Then Katinka says: “I hate Corona!”
Why? “Because it’s a stupid disease!”
Now, the other children also chime in: “I hate corona!”
And where is corona?
Matteo, 5: “It falls onto the umbrella and sticks to things.”
Katinka: “Corona is everywhere.”
Maximilian: “When you open the door, corona comes inside.”
71% of the children and adolescents surveyed feel the corona crisis is either extremely or quite stressful.
What kinds of things are you unable to do because of corona?
They all answer at once: “We can’t go to the swimming pool!” “Or the zoo!” “And I can’t go to gymnastics!” “Or to ballet!” “You’re not allowed to go to the toy store!” “You can’t go on planes!” “You can’t visit your friends.”
How is it possible to speak with children about the pandemic in a language they’ll understand when even adults have a difficult time grasping its consequences? What words should be used to speak to children about the illness without scaring them?
Melanie Gassl lives in Riedstadt, a small town near Frankfurt. Her son is three years old and he just finished two weeks in quarantine because a nursery teacher at his daycare center had tested positive for COVID-19. His eight-year-old sister and his parents were allowed to go outside, but he had to stay indoors or in the yard. “We didn’t try to explain. We just said it wasn’t possible at the moment,” Gassl says. Luckily, she adds, he didn’t ask why.
It is not an easy situation. Berlin-based psychiatrist Jan Kalbitzer, who just published a book about the societal effects of the pandemic, says: “With small children, it is particularly important that parents protect them from their own worries.”
Still, argues developmental psychologist Barbara Juen from the University of Innsbruck, completely shielding them from all bad news also isn’t the way to go. “Children are supposed to wash their hands more frequently and keep their distance from others. Many people around them are wearing masks. Even the smallest children have understood that their daily lives have changed.”
She believes it scares children even more if nobody talks to them about these changes. They could even start thinking that the adults are trying to hide something. “Parents should explain to them in specific situations why they are now wearing masks,” Juen says. “They can also explain to the children why the virus is more dangerous for grandpa and the importance of protecting others.”
The rule for smaller children, according to Juen: “Don’t overload them. At first, just talk to them about what they need to know to understand changes to their daily lives. Answer their questions honestly and calmly.” Parents can also approach the issue in a playful manner through a story or a picture book – one about the human immune system, for example.
Older children and adolescents, on the other hand, “get information through so many channels that the focus should be on giving them orientation and helping them understand what to trust.” Parents, teachers or other authority figures, says Juen, should work together with older children to understand what are facts, and what are just rumors. “They will then be able to manage the flood of information they are confronted with in the social media channels.”
Changing Schools to Meet the Challenge
On the one hand, schools offer a bit of stability for children at the moment, but they are also a source of stress because things are constantly changing. Marion Schrickel is standing in the schoolyard of an elementary school in the town of Arnstadt, near Erfurt in the state of Thuringia. In Germany’s federalist system, each state has worked out its own approach to the pandemic, and the traffic-light system in Thuringia is now at yellow for Arnstadt, meaning normal school and daycare operations with certain limitations. For schools in Arnstadt, that means that classes in grades 1-6 no longer mix with other classes.
“Every class has its own area,” Schrickel says, pointing at the black-and-gold strips on the ground marking where one group’s territory ends and the other begins. At the moment, three classes have recess and the children chase each other through the schoolyard just as loudly as ever. But they don’t cross the lines. At the end of the recess, they line up at doors across the yard from each other before heading back inside.
Similar measures may soon be in effect at other schools in the region, depending on how infection numbers continue to develop. Older students, though, are more easily able to deal with such changes. And they can even influence them by mobilizing in favor of alternative learning models. Some write letters to the school authorities or join demonstrations, essentially continuing the newfound sense of responsibility that started last year with the climate protests. Getting involved is an excellent way to counteract the feelings of powerlessness in the pandemic.
Xueling Zhou, 16, is the elected representative for the student body at a high school in Cologne and is also a member of the steering committee of the statewide student association. “One of our most important demands is the shift to hybrid teaching models,” the 11th-grader says. “To reduce the risk of infection without closing schools entirely, every class should be split in two.”
Xueling, though, says that she and the other students aren’t making much headway with policymakers. “Nobody at the state government is interested in our ideas. Us teenagers just aren’t important enough.” Xueling also thinks she knows why that is: “Politicians are trying to do whatever they can to make things like they were before the crisis. But that’s unfortunately not possible.”
The result is that even those who are actively looking to make improvements have the feeling that there is nothing they can do to change their lot. Still, the situation is even more challenging for those who just finished school and had been hoping to launch into a new career or adventure.
“Here in Germany, we grow up in such a good situation. I wanted to give something back to the world. I had time after finishing school and I wanted to use it,” says Lasse Lohmann, an 18-year-old from Bonn. He finished high school earlier this year and had been planning to spend a year in South Africa doing volunteer work with orphans and needy families in a township 70 kilometers north of Cape Town. Instead, though, he is now studying molecular biotechnology at the Technical University of Munich.
“The days after cancelling my plans were tough. If not now, when am I going to do such a thing in my life?” He is fully aware that other people have it much worse than he does and are struggling just to make ends meet. But it hurts when you have to abandon your dreams. They weren’t able to have a big party when they left school, there was no big party for first-year university students now. “And it’s not even your fault. It’s just fate.”
“It’s Quite Depressing”
Many university students have returned to their parents’ homes and are attending all of their classes online while student housing in college towns is largely empty at the moment. Svenja Strube, 20, goes to university in the Dutch city of Groningen but lived for several months of this year with her parents in Germany. She has now returned to the Netherlands, but says: “Groningen seems like it’s been abandoned. It’s quite depressing.”
None of this is impossible to overcome, but the fragility of the world and of their own futures has already marked this generation. Many in Germany grew up with few concerns about their material well-being, with peace and freedom taken largely for granted. Now, though, they have been confronted with the reality that even the most basic assumptions can change quickly for them too.
Given the impossibility of protecting children both young and old from the life-changing consequences of this pandemic, what is the best approach? Some of the answers to that question are nothing short of radical, such as the one from pediatrician and author Herbert Renz-Polster.
“My request to teachers is to not simply continue on with the subject matter, but to take a closer look at their students. Some children are falling behind, others are struggling emotionally because they’re not doing well. They need help to heal and get back into balance.” It’s not enough, he says, to just keep the schools open by implementing a few hygiene rules. “Children must be receptive to education in the first place. They can’t learn when they are under stress.”
He believes that the best way to support schoolchildren is to get rid of grading for the time being and throw out the curricula. “Right now, they need much more than math, German and physics. Schools need to strengthen children and focus on projects that give them confidence.” He believes they should be spending more time outside in nature where they can develop their personalities. “Once their personalities are developed, the rest will come.”
Educators have, in fact, noticed that the corona crisis has had a significant effect on the maturation process. Helplessness is not the dominant emotion for many. They are realizing that they, too, can make a significant contribution to overcoming the pandemic.
Anja Tomiczek is head of a daycare center in the city of Essen that cares for 110 children between the ages of four months and six years. “The year 2020 has forced us to be creative, but also to just change our perspectives,” she says. “Because children are now entering the daycare center without their parents, they have become much more independent in situations where they used to rely completely on their parents.”
Many experts are saying that it is finally time to end the eternal discussion about including children’s rights in the German constitution – by finally doing it. “If children’s rights had already been included in the constitution, a lot would have been done differently,” says Ute Thyen, the pediatrician at the clinic in Lübeck. “Then, the interests of the children would have been considered to the same degree as those of the adults. Instead, we have these technocratic solutions in which children and adolescents aren’t seen as people with the same rights as us but just as potential carriers of the virus.”
Sometimes, whether something is a burden for children in Germany is a matter of perspective. Such as the more than 300 billion euros the country has had to borrow to get through the crisis. It sounds like nothing short of a horror story for the next generation.
Youth Could Benefit from Borrowing
At the moment, though, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz is able to borrow money at close to no extra cost. Depending on load periods he and whoever succeeds him may actually have to pay back less than was borrowed in the first place. Furthermore, the level of debt this time around is lower than it was during the financial crisis 12 years ago.
Back then, Germany’s debt level – including federal, state and municipal borrowing – climbed to 80 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). This time, though, it will likely amount to only 70 percent of GDP by the end of next year. If 80 percent proved manageable back then, to the point that it was paid down by a quarter during the ensuing decade, then the same is true this time around.
In addition, on the long term, the debt will likely help young people more than it will hurt them. They will benefit throughout their entire careers from the government’s decision to borrow billions to prevent a worse economic collapse during the corona crisis. The alternative would have been an even deeper recession with an even longer recovery period for companies and the state. Many of the jobs that younger people are able to apply for today would have been lost or wouldn’t have been created in the first place and many salaries would have been lower.
Back to the town of Weissenhorn near Ulm and the single mother of four. Nineteen-year-old Leonard is meeting up with his friends online, with 12 of them joining a video chat every Friday for a few beers and some gossip.
Leonard’s brother Cosmas completed his moped license four weeks ago. When he needs a break from the monotony, he says, he hops on his scooter for a ride – a moment of freedom.
Ferdinand is outside on the bar doing pullups, muscle ups and hip lifts. It’s not quite the same as a complete gymnastics workout, but better than nothing.
Lisa, meanwhile, is just hoping that the pandemic will soon be over.
And her mother Sylvia is hoping that the schools won’t close their doors again.