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Helpless getting children over the trauma of Covid

David Perry is a journalist and senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota

My daughter flung herself down on me, crying as she said, "I hate this so much." She's 11 now but still a foot shorter than me, so her head was pressed into my chest, her words muffled. I felt the damp of her tears press through my T-shirt and squeezed her as tightly as I dared. "Me, too," I said.

My daughter is part of "Generation Covid" or Gen C. It's a generation that will not only be marked by the trauma of the disruption and death, but also by witnessing the total failures of adults to protect them and their world. So far. I keep telling myself that with just a little more effort, we could change the lesson, but mostly I don't know what to do. I try not to pretend that I have answers. So I hold her and hope that's enough for now.

Every parent I know is struggling, and not just with the impossible tasks asked of us. There's no way to be a good parent, teacher, employee and spouse, all at the same time, as the world collapses and we're isolated in our homes. But it's more than that. As winter settles over us, it becomes harder every day to keep away the fear. Generation Covid will carry the trauma of this year into adulthood.

"Gen C" was proposed as a term in the early part of the last decade by marketing gurus seeking to define a generation "consumer" or generation "connected". The term didn't stick as near as I can tell, which may be for the best, because now the C stands for Covid-19.

Ed Yong, of The Atlantic, recoined the term when talking to a friend with a new baby, a use that may expand to distinguish people who were children during the 2020 pandemic. My daughter is technically Gen Z, which has been commonly defined as 1997-2012. Perhaps we should rethink those generational categories, though. Predicting generational divides before they happen is a fraught business, but it's hard to imagine something that could define a cohort more than being a child — aware yet powerless — during this pandemic.

My daughter is too connected to be fully distracted from the crisis. Daily, as she logs in to class, as she plays Among Us or Minecraft with friends, or as she clicks past adverts to get to a new YouTuber's shenanigan, she is reminded of her collapsing world and how much she has lost. (I asked her permission to write this; she's online, and she's going to find it eventually.) But I suspect that she would be able to read it in my own mood, even if she had no idea what was going on in the world beyond our walls. All our children, isolated with us, feel it, and the strain is showing.

The fight that inspired her tears was about using her phone during lunch when she's technically at school. She argued. I yelled. She cried. I apologised. We snuggled. On my chest, her voice still muffled, she talked about her last trip with her friends early in March, when their class went to a camp in northern Minnesota. It's become a kind of mythical Before Time, a pre-apocalyptic age. My stomach clenched in tension as I pondered how to help. It always does when the conversation drifts to the bigger picture.

We're all too frayed or stretched too thin. My wife has been dealing with post-Covid-19 symptoms that just linger and linger. Both of us have been battling the school district over our son's education for months now, to no avail, and our daughter is well aware of these problems that seem intractable. My son is manifesting signs of trauma, too, albeit in his own way. He's autistic, has Down’s syndrome, and is non-speaking, instead communicating constantly through words and other sounds, gestures, touch, sign language and an app on a tablet that converts icons and typed words to speech. He, too, is part of Gen C, although he and I lack the language skills to fully communicate how he feels about it, but he's a clever and perceptive young man for whom touch is especially important.

He's lost that. He's lost casual contact with people, and I can see it hurting him. He runs to the door to greet delivery people with enthusiasm, as if every visitor were a long-lost friend, each contact with another person a triumph. He misses his world, and I see it in every interaction, even when refracted through seeming joy.

My broader parent community is full of parents of disabled children, few of whom are having their educational needs met. But I'm still worried about the children — neurotypical or not — who seem to be doing well, who seem to be adapting and learning, who are probably skating on the edge of constant collapse.

As I held my daughter, I kept thinking about her seeming competence and evident distress. I worry that we may be overlooking the ways that all Gen C children old enough to remember will carry the trauma of this year into the rest of their lives, no matter how well they seem to be coping minute to minute. Mental health professionals and social workers are studying the issue, worried about "high rates of clinginess, distraction, irritability, and fear among children," while parents are less able to cope or are becoming abusive. They do have a lot of data on the long-term physical and mental health difficulties that can stem from adverse childhood experiences, trauma and toxic stress but may not have examples quite at this scale — everyone everywhere, all at once, for months.

Of course, widespread, the trauma will not be shared evenly, but, as always, distributed unequally along the lines of inequality in this country. The weight will pile up on those who are poor, disabled, not-white or unhoused, multiplying in intensity with the categories of marginalisation as they intersect. Some will become ill, many are losing family members or caretakers, and they will know that it didn't have to be this way. My daughter grinds her teeth and clenches her fists when she sees people without masks or pictures of parties and rallies that crammed people indoors. She knows. She's full of a rage about the state of our world from which I hoped to spare her for at least a few more years.

I don't know what to do for her, let alone for the millions of other children her age who are living through the same things. I know that we can wear masks, stay home, pass relief bills, stop playing politics with the pandemic and get vaccinated, but writing a better end to the story won't erase the long-term impact of our failures.

We can, however, understand that even as the schools reopen and the world snaps back, there will still be a Before Time and an After for our children. They won't forget, and it's going to shape Gen C for the rest of their lives.

David Perry is a journalist and senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota

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Published December 18, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 17, 2020 at 6:20 pm)

Helpless getting children over the trauma of Covid

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