Gabriel was always an “angsty” child, his mother, Camille, remembers. This story also appeared in The Seattle Times As a toddler, he was bright and curious — by nine months he was intuitive enough to test out the strength of a cardboard box before climbing onto it. But he cried easily and was quick to anger. During fits, he’d swing his head back so violently that Camille considered buying him a helmet.
His mother didn’t understand his emotional outbursts, so when Camille heard about a research study on stress and its biological and social roots in kids Gabriel’s age, she enrolled him. For the past 12 or so years, Gabriel, now 15, has visited the University of Washington for a battery of biological and psychological tests. Just before the pandemic, researchers scanned his brain using a magnetic resonance imaging machine. (The Seattle Times is using only Camille and Gabriel’s first names to protect their privacy.)
The researchers studying Gabriel and hundreds of other Puget Sound-area families knew that early-life stress can have long-term consequences for mental health, which in turn can have profound effects on a child’s ability to learn in school. But what, exactly, happens to kids’ brains?
Answering that question became even more urgent when the pandemic hit, and the daily lives of so many children and teens were suddenly plagued by stress. Adolescents are generally more prone to anxiety and depression, but an unusually high number — more than half — were reporting these symptoms around six months into the pandemic, the researchers found. Their latest findings on depression and anxiety, published this month, are a dire signal that the pandemic’s toll is steep, and they hold lessons for parents and teachers navigating an unpredictable path back to in-person learning.
Among the timely solutions the researchers have identified: having a structured daily routine and limiting passive screen time during the pandemic protects kids against depression and anxiety. Research is clear on the link between mental health and academics. Kids struggling with fears or having trouble regulating their emotions are more likely to experience challenges in school. The researchers’ work may prove invaluable to families — but also to teachers, who are rushing to understand how the pandemic might affect children’s learning and academic success.
At the start of the pandemic, the news was all bad, all the time. George Floyd was murdered by police, and social uprisings ensued. Schools were closed, and friends and teachers — typical buffers against the consequences of stress — all but disappeared. Liliana Lengua, UW’s Maritz Family Foundation Professor of Psychology, focuses on trauma / stress and its impacts on youth brain development and social / emotional /mental health outcomes.