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COVID - A Universal Adverse Childhood Experience “ACE”.

Updated: Apr 6


Due to the recent lifting of COVID restrictions in Ireland we were able to have a family event in our home to celebrate our eldest child’s 18th birthday. It was so wonderful to be able to have both sets of grandparents and cousins all together for the first time since Christmas 2019. However, about an hour into the gathering, both of my younger children, aged 11 and 13, had to leave the room and find a quiet space for a little breather as they were overwhelmed by the whole experience. Both came to me separately at different times and used the word “stress” when describing how they were feeling. Prior to this, I thought that we had all sailed through the pandemic unscathed (we have been lucky to have avoided contracting coronavirus thus far). It stuck me that, no, we weren’t all fine. Although I felt great about having everyone here, the boys were finding the whole experience a little too much to handle. Before the pandemic, such social anxiety would not have affected them.


Our Generations World War

Needless to say this experience got me thinking over the next few days. I started to consider the post traumatic stress that children may experience while emerging from the pandemic as an adverse childhood experience (ACE). Research is highlighting how the lockdowns and resulting social exclusion imposed during the pandemic has exacerbated ACE’s such as increased domestic violence. However, what if emerging from the pandemic is an ACE in itself, with children experiencing difficulty moving forward in their social and emotional development and developing stress and anxiety as a result? The Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in 2021 that the COVID19 pandemic had caused more “mass trauma” than World War II, the effects of which on our mental health will be felt for “many years to come”. Indeed, this is not the first time that I have heard a correlation between the pandemic and WWII. Anecdotally I have heard numerous people refer to the pandemic as “our generation’s World War”.


WWII Trauma & Children

In 2009 a study was published which explored the long-term effects of the evacuation of British children during WWII on their mental health in adulthood. This study revealed that children who were evacuated between the ages of 4 and 6 were at a higher risk of developing depression, anxiety and had high levels of self-criticism as adults (Rusby & Tasker, 2009). If the pandemic has caused increased levels of mass trauma, as posited by the WHO, then this is a significant issue which must be addressed expediently to mitigate the long-term impact of COVID19 experiences on young children which may continue to impact them into adulthood.


A Universal ACE

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines ACE’s as “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years)….linked to chronic health problems, mental illness….into adulthood). The CDC also mentions how “some children are at greater risk than others”, however, during the COVID pandemic, every child and adult in the entire population of the world was at risk and impacted, no one could escape the threat of coronavirus. Experiences of social exclusion and isolation, closures of schools, reduced family income, limitations on freedom to travel beyond 2km of home, curfews (in some countries), cancellation of all extra-curricular activities, are a few of the impacts of coronavirus that children have witnessed. Children who experienced family members become gravely ill, or even die from the virus, would have experienced fear, grief, terror and loss. Those children who contracted the virus may have needed hospital treatment and had fears that they themselves might die. Don’t forget the entire cohort of children born since March 2020 who think most people outside of their immediate family only have eyes and the impact of that on their social and emotional development. In my mind, it goes without saying that the COVID19 pandemic was a universal adverse childhood experience (ACE).


Long Term Impact

Even in my own family, where we were lucky enough to escape infection and had no deaths or serious illness in our extended family due to coronavirus, my children have still come out of it with some level of stress and social anxiety, which only became evident to me at our recent family gathering. I can only imagine the potential impact on the mental health of children who did experience illness and death due to COVID19. Research studies indicate that children “may continue to have increased long term adverse consequences” when compared to adults (Shen et al, 2020, UNICEF, 2021). Recommendations to address this include longitudinal developmental studies coupled with immediate plans to tackle and address the mental health needs of our young children resulting from the pandemic. Although we usually associated children with resilience, we must not underestimate the impact that the COVID pandemic has had on them, whether it be to a greater or lesser extent.


Investment and Training

Investment in mental health services for children must increase, educational settings need to be supported to provide for children’s mental health and wellbeing and we must speak openly about mental health and it’s impact on children (UNICEF, 2021). Barnardo’s have published a useful booklet for practitioners to support children facing adversity during COVID19 here. You can also find information on trauma sensitive ECEC through Early Childhood Ireland here. However, I feel there is a need for targeted and mandatory practitioner training to support children’s mental health and wellbeing post-pandemic as part of continuing professional development for early years practitioners.

About the Author: Paula Walshe is an ECEC trainer and placement assessor in the further education and training sector and a freelance writer. She currently holds a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and will complete her studies for a Master’s Degree in Leadership for ECEC in 2022. Paula has extensive ECEC experience in both pedagogical practice and ECEC management. You can learn more about Paula’s work at her website (www.thedigitalearlychildhoodeducator.ie), where she writes a weekly blog on current topics in Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and provides useful professional and academic resources for students and professionals in this sector. Paula is also one of the creators of an ECE community of practice based on Twitter: ECE Quality Ireland (@ECEQualityIRL) / Twitter Contact Paula: LinkedIn: Paula Walshe / Twitter: @digitalearlyed / Instagram: @digitalearlychildhoodeducator.

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