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Does your child have "Social Malnutrition"?

This article was first published in the September 2021 issue of the SCMP Good Schools Guide.

By Katrina Rozga CCC MC (Psych)

Over the past year, many parents have been concerned about their children falling behind academically. Meanwhile, health care professionals have been focused on how the pandemic has affected children’s overall wellbeing.

There is a growing body of evidence that children have suffered a sort of whole-system setback, a condition that has been termed “social malnutrition”.

Coined by Canadian paediatrician Dr. Saba Merchant, social malnutrition captures the possible long-term damage done to a child’s physical and mental health as a result of pandemic living. Reduced social contact, isolation, higher rates of stress and anxiety, and an overall lack of normal socialisation have all contributed to children’s lagging development.

More Tantrums, More Anxiety, Less Focus

Social malnutrition can manifest itself in a host of ways, depending on the age of the child. Without reassuring routines, younger children may have more temper tantrums and outbursts. Separated from their school friends, older children, including teens, have exhibited higher rates of mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.

Over the past year, we have expected children to function like adults, working diligently from home with little to motivate them except a face on a screen. Children of all ages have shown declining levels of focus, attention and engagement, a not-unexpected effect of extended online schooling.

With parents hovering over their shoulders, the pressure to perform well academically has also placed an extra burden of stress on many children learning from home.

Boredom, and a lack of structure and routine, can also lead to another unhealthy outcome: poor eating habits. Overeating, along with a lack of physical activity options such as team sports, has led to higher rates of weight gain and obesity among children.

Obesity is not only unhealthy physically, but also has a variety of serious social consequences. Obese children are often singled out and teased, and are unfairly regarded as less intelligent and capable than their peers.

Higher Levels of Risk

Isolation can have an impact on social, mental, cognitive and language development. These risks are even higher for children who have pre-existing neurodevelopmental issues. Kids with ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism require specialised support to build on their strengths, and shore up areas of weakness.

They also benefit immensely from the moderating effect of a classroom, where being with others offers valuable social learning opportunities.

Sadly, the home lives of some children are not healthy, and in some cases, not safe. Stress, including financial loss, have put parents on edge, making them irritable and impatient. Stressed and anxious adults are also more likely to have angry outbursts, and may verbally or physically abuse their kids.

In homes where abuse is already present, children have been left without any escape when schools closed.

Support, Not Judgement

It may sound dire, but children are in fact very resilient and will heal with the right support. Most educational specialists are not terribly worried about most children’s ability to catch up academically.

Nonetheless, it will be important for parents to stay in touch with their children’s school and be open to the possibility of their child needing extra support. Remember, your child is not alone in their experience – do not make them feel bad for losing a bit of ground during these unusual times.

Mental health issues, however, may take more time to resolve. Higher levels of anxiety and depression can have longer term impacts on the whole family.

It’s important for parents to look out for signs that their children are struggling, like shifts in their behaviour, changes in sleep or eating habits as well as a lack of interest in things that used to bring them joy.

If a parent notices these kinds of signs, it’s important to speak with a professional.

The Effects are Real

Social malnutrition is a helpful term to help us understand the broad mental and physical health implications brought on by the pandemic. Childhood, including the teen years, is a period defined by incredible growth and development. Socialisation is critical to helping children fulfil their social, emotional and physical developmental needs.

School closures, social distancing, and the resulting issues from pandemic living are real. But now that we are aware of them, we can work towards supporting our children and helping them mitigate the deficiencies brought on by social malnutrition.

If you are concerned about your child’s social or emotional well-being, or their academic status, contact the BFDC. We can help.