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COVID has a dramatic impact on children

February 5, 2021

No kindergarten or school, no play dates or sports — the corona crisis has dramatic consequences for children. Pediatricians observe deteriorating health conditions and a dramatic increase in behavioral disorders.

toddler cuddling a tabby cat
Toddlers can't remember a time when children could meet up all at once without a face maskImage: picture-alliance/ZB/P. Pleul

It was in December that Axel Gerschlauer noticed the crisis within the crisis. In the last three weeks before Christmas, the pediatrician found himself treating three minors who had slashed their lower arms. *

Three youths in three weeks — Gerschlauer says he usually sees this sort of thing about once every three to six months. "This kind of frequency,” he says, "brought the scale of the problem home to me." 

And this at a time when Gerschlauer is not even getting to see all his regular patients. Some are avoiding his practice altogether for fear of infection. His phone, meanwhile, has hardly stopped ringing, as desperate parents seek his advice. 

"There has been a shift of emphasis towards psychological issues, ranging from anxieties to concentration disorders to sleep disorders. In recent months, mental health issues have increased massively."

The pandemic's toll on kids

Pediatricians observe development disorders 

Gerschlauer is also the press spokesman for the North-Rhine division of the German Association of Pediatricians. That puts him in an ideal position to assess how the country's 13.5 million minors are coping with the coronavirus pandemic. 

He says the reports he is getting from his colleagues are getting more dramatic by the day. "Behavioral disorders, speech development issues, many children have put on a lot of weight. Excessive media consumption. And parents who aren't taking their children to scheduled check-ups."

Axel Gerschlauer says he and his colleagues can only form a vague idea of all the effects of the lockdown on children and teenagers at this stage. A further concern is domestic child abuse, much of which remains hidden from the pediatricians. 

It is already clear that Germany will have to invest heavily in getting hundreds of thousands of girls and boys back on track.

"It will be a huge task. In the next two years we will need a plan of action and a huge increase in staff. Above all, we are going to need at least 50% more psychotherapists," says Axel Gerschlauer.

A boy and girl sitting on a sofa watching TV and eating crisps
During the pandemic many children have put on a lot of weight and developed mental problemsImage: Rudolf/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Children and teenagers using helplines

For some forty years now, there has been a helpline for children and teenagers to call when they are lovesick, struggling academically or fighting with their parents. 

Today, the volunteers are the first port of call for kids struggling with the lockdown. Children as young as eight are calling for advice. "Topics such as mental health or loneliness have taken on huge significance in recent months. We are also hearing from more young people who are experiencing violence," says Anna Zacharias, public relations officer for the helpline.

She has had her hands full dealing with media enquiries about the helpline. For example, one German TV presenter made an emotional appeal against the coronavirus restrictions and cited the 461,000 children and teenagers who turned to the hotline last year.

A father helping his son to do homework on a laptop computer
Parents are calling helplines to discuss the pandemic situation exacerbating the usual concerns such as puberty or familial strifeImage: Nicolas Armer/dpa/picture alliance

Online helpline for parents too

Perhaps a silver lining in the pandemic cloud is the greater prominence enjoyed by the helpline. "2020 saw a sharp increase in the number of people using our online chat service, which went up by a third over 2019," says Zacharias.

In addition to the 3,000 trained telephone advisers a further 80 staff now work on the online chats. They are in greater demand than ever in the pandemic. "The children write that everyone is at home so they can't talk on the phone."

Concerned mothers and fathers can at least wait until the children are in bed before they call the special line for parents. "Consultations for parents rose by 64% in 2020 over the previous year," reports Anna Zacharias. 

Alongside the usual concerns such as puberty, break-ups or familial strife, the lockdown has taken center stage, both for children and their parents. And it is getting worse by the day. "This week we had a caller who said he was envious of Austria because they were already coming out of their lockdown."

A young girl refusing to swallow the medicine given to her on a spoon
Parents are not taking their children to clinics for fear of possilbe coronavirus exposure thereImage: M. Begsteiger/McPHOTO/blickwinkel/picture alliance

Corona crisis has become normality

Teenagers slashing their lower arms, eight-year-olds calling the helpline —  but what about the toddlers? Ulla Baumgärtner-Schmäing, who has been working for the German Child Protection Federation for 18 years says: "If the parents are anxious about the coronavirus, that has a direct effect on the children."

The social education worker tells a story of a mother whose youngest son refused to go to kindergarten under any circumstances – for fear of getting the coronavirus. "I said I could not imagine that," says Baumgärtner-Schmäing, "and then it turned out that the mother was terrified of the virus. That had not passed the child by and the fear rubbed off on him."

She runs a parent-child meeting place in Bonn currently attended by 20 children, most of whom are under three years of age —  children who cannot remember a time when people did not all wear masks, when children could meet up all at once and you had to wash your hands all the time. 

Perhaps these little girls and boys are better able to cope with the restrictions than their older siblings, who often look up at Baumgärtel-Schmäing with sadness in their eyes. "The smallest ones build it into their games and put masks on their dolls and teddy bears. In that sense, the corona crisis is part of normality for them."

This article has been translated from German.

*If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: https://www.befrienders.org/

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.
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