Vaccine United

Adolescents, Early Teens Experience Anxiety As Schools Transition To No Masks

By: Ana Altchek, Follow South Jersey Intern

SOUTH JERSEY – When Governor Phil Murphy removed mask mandates on March 7, many were thrilled to take off the face coverings, get back to work in person, reunite with family and friends in large gatherings and most importantly, resume normal life without fear and restriction. For some though, this sudden and major shift presented an unexpected level of discomfort and fear. 

Given that students have either been remote or masked in school for the last two years, this new policy represents a major social and environmental change for many children. Adolescents, who already experience extremely high levels of hormonal and developmental changes during this time, were particularly susceptible to an increase in anxiety that hasn’t been as easily tossed as a worn paper mask. Infact, many middle school and high school students have opted to keep their masks on, despite the policy changes and reduced risk of COVID-19 severity. 

Leonid Davelman from Marlboro has observed the difference in responses from his two children. Davelamn describes his son as a happy-go-lucky kid who returned to school without a mask as if nothing happened. His older daughter in sixth grade who struggled with anxiety throughout the pandemic, has had the opposite experience. Davleman says she has been unable to leave the house at times because of her anxiety about getting others sick. 

David Charles Knott, an employee in Marlton School District, reports a similar phenomenon. Since he works at various schools in the district, he says that there’s a notable difference between the age groups. In elementary school, he says that almost no kids have a mask on. Additionally, the kids seem to alternate their mask wearing when they enter and exit the buses to appease parents.

In the middle school, Knott notices about 25% of students still wear a mask. Interestingly enough, the kids don’t practice social distancing and regularly make physical contact with each other. He also says many of the students wear the masks inconsistently. Some days they come in with a mask and others they don’t. These inconsistencies in practices may reflect conflicting thoughts and reasoning on why they’re wearing them in the first place.

Younger age groups may have been too unaware to understand the gravity of what was going on and may have gone along with the new practices and norms without much thought. 

Those children will probably just as easily forget the days of wearing a mask everyday and being told to distance themselves from other kids. Similarly, teenagers who already had hobbies, friend groups, and their own developed thoughts on life seem to be less affected in the long-term as schools resume back to normal. 

Nikki Stouffer, a medical statistician from Medford Township and parent of two children, claims her daughter, who was sixteen at the start of the pandemic, was able to go right back to normal but struggled during the pandemic with social anxiety. She notes that the lack of comradery in and out of classes was particularly difficult for her daughter and created distance with her friends.

“They didn’t interact at school so they didn’t interact at home either. She just started playing video games,” Stouffer says.

Since the mask guidelines were lifted, Stouffer says that her daughter has been able to interact more with friends and start making social plans again. This change has made her much happier. For younger teens who are less secure in their friendships and more dependent on parents for making plans, this transition might take longer.

Katherine Hart, a middle school teacher in Trenton with her PhD in education, noticed the disparity between the different age groups firsthand. As a mom with a preschooler in Medford School Township, she says that every kid in her son’s class was unmasked the first day back to school after the mask mandate was lifted. In the middle school she teaches at, the students were notably reluctant to take it off and most continued to wear it in the first few weeks following the lift.

“There’s a social and emotional developmental component that’s affecting teenagers,” Hart says. “It’s like a security blanket for them.”

According to Dr. Eileen Kennedy Moore, child and family psychologist and author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem, there’s psychological reasons for this difference in response from the adolescent and early teenagers. In the midst of a global and unprecedented pandemic, this age group is also encountering body changes, skin breakouts and concerns about romantic interests for the first time. 

“This is a stage of life when kids are hideously self conscious,” Moore says. “With all of that going through their heads, for some kids, it can feel easier to just hide behind the mask.”

In many ways, the last two years have bred a hiding ground for many. For those who were already introverts, this period may have actually felt like a positive societal change. Many children who weren’t necessarily anxious or introverted prior to the pandemic though, may have developed these tendencies given the unprecedented conditions that lasted longer than most people expected. 

In addition to feeling self-conscious, these age groups experienced a particular poignancy from other ones because many adolescents weren’t able to socialize the way they normally would. Moore raises a point that young teens experience developmental changes that cause them to increasingly focus outward on their peer groups. While the importance of parents never drops, the importance of peers carries significant weight during this time. Not only were they unable to socialize in school, but many sports and clubs were canceled during this time. 

Children may not have been at a high risk for the physical dangers of the COVID pandemic, but in many ways, they were victims as well. The economic effects on parents and the mitigation measures called on by the state caused inadvertent harm to many that left a lasting impact on their social development and mental health.

According to Moore though, this doesn’t have to be the final chapter. For the kids that struggle to get back to normalcy and continue to be withdrawn, the ongoing narrative is going to have an impact on them moving forward. She stresses that the treatment for anxiety is not avoidance, as this makes anxiety grow.

“If a kid is scared, they might want to take baby steps, but they have to get in the water and stay there,” Moore says. 

Maryann Janezic, a dance teacher and mom from Monmouth County, says that the young teenagers in her dance class are much more reluctant to take off their masks than the preschoolers and third graders she sees around her own kids. In fact, she says that the pandemic period was emotionally debilitating for some of them. While they have been slower to remove the masks though, Janezic notices a major performance difference in those who do.

“With the mask off, it’s a totally different level of being confident dancing,” Janezic says. “I noticed with the teenagers who have finally taken them off that there’s a big personality difference.”

Moore recommends that parents offer a combination of empathy and confidence. Empathy is crucial in order to acknowledge and accept the child’s fear of taking off their mask and entering an environment that has been off limits for the last two years. The second step though is equally important because the child needs to have support that they can handle this challenge and it will become easier with time. 

Educators can also play a part in this process as well. While they should normalize the anxiety, Moore notes that the objective is to refrain from encouraging an avoidance cycle because it will make the anxiety grow. The more children avoid taking off the mask, the bigger the deal it will become to eventually do it. 

“Anxiety is not a stop signal,” Moore says. “It’s a sign that we’re doing something new and challenging. That’s a good thing. Anxiety actually helps us to perform better. It energizes our body and focuses our mind.”

According to Moore, anxiety can even help people perform better by energizing the human body and focusing the mind. Rather than suppress fears with avoidance, Moore suggests open acceptance of it. 

“We need to embrace that anxiety and accept it and move forward in the ways that matter to us,” Moore says. 

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