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What life is like for an 11-year-old

Avah Lamie, 11, says this is a stressful time to be a kid. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and youth were on the rise even before COVID, but the past two years have made things worse.

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Avah Lamie is in fifth grade and lives in Hartford, Vt. The pandemic brought a big loss of stability for kids, experts say.
Avah Lamie is in fifth grade and lives in Hartford, Vt. The pandemic brought a big loss of stability for kids, experts say. Michele Abercrombie/NPR

Avah Lamie feels like the world needs a lot of fixing. She feels it when she thinks about melting glaciers and plastic in the ocean. And lately, she's been feeling it at school.

"We've had some fights at recess, some physical, some just yelling," she says. "It really just — it gets you down sometimes."

The 11-year-old lives in Hartford, a Vermont town of almost 10,000 people near the border with New Hampshire. She's like a lot of kids: She takes dance, likes science and has a little brother. She's in fifth grade at a small public school called Dothan Brook.

Windsor County, Vt.
Windsor County, Vt. Michele Abercrombie/NPR

"Some people just have rough times at home, I think. It's not really any of my business. And ... some people just, they want to be tough, because we're going through a really hard thing."

That really hard thing is the COVID-19 pandemic. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and youth were on the rise even before COVID, but kids — and the grownups around them — say the past two years have made mental health challenges worse.

Avah says everything feels a lot bigger right now.

"We have to focus on a lot at once. And since things can't really be the same, because of COVID, of course, I think it just makes people more emotional and sensitive."

Avah Lamie arrives home from school.
Avah Lamie arrives home from school. Michele Abercrombie/NPR
Avah waters her plants when she comes home from school.
Avah waters her plants when she comes home from school. Michele Abercrombie/NPR

Mollie Farnham-Stratton says Avah's right. She's a therapist who works with young people at the Vermont Center for Anxiety Care. The pandemic brought a big loss of stability.

"Whether it's a small thing like a playdate, but they were looking forward to it for so long, and then somebody's sick, right? That kind of constant shifting ... that, I think, is just exhausting."

Farnham-Stratton says kids pick up on the stress of adults in their lives.

Avah and her mom, Sara Lamie, embrace at their home.
Avah and her mom, Sara Lamie, embrace at their home. Michele Abercrombie/NPR

Avah does. At school, she sees the strain on her teachers.

"There's the crinkle in their eyebrows, their eyes look kind of distracted sometimes," she says.

On top of all that, there are still the expectations of school — but disrupted schedules and pervasive anxiety can make meeting them feel impossible.

Allison Hayes, an elementary school counselor in Vermont, says that with young kids especially, anxiety doesn't manifest as being worried about this or that in particular. Kids often don't have the language to express what they're feeling, she says, or even to identify what that feeling is.

Instead, "anxiety often for kids comes out as a more aggressive behavior, irritability, and so it's quicker. Everybody's a little quicker to snap."

It could explain some of what Avah sees at recess.

The thing that adults sometimes forget about being a kid is that for what seems like a very long time, you're old enough to get what's going on, but too young to do anything about it. Avah says she's in between, which is a hard place to be.

Avah takes Molly out for a walk in her backyard.
Avah takes Molly out for a walk in her backyard. Michele Abercrombie/NPR
Avah plays with her pets after school.
Avah plays with her pets after school. Michele Abercrombie/NPR

"I know lots of kids out there that are feeling alone and crowded in this pandemic, like both at the same time. Sometimes you need to give them space and other times you just have to be there to support them."

Therapist Mollie Farnham-Stratton says despite the uncertainty, adults should try to be honest. In an age-appropriate way, she says try to explain what's going on.

The pandemic's long-term impacts on young people won't be understood for a long time. But mental health experts say that kids are resilient. Some of those impacts will be challenges, and some could be strengths.

For Avah, even though so many of the world's problems seem enormous, they aren't insurmountable. "There's a lot going on out there that we can actually fix," she says, "but it will take a lot of time."

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Avah playing in her room after school.
Avah playing in her room after school. Michele Abercrombie/NPR

Transcript :

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking recently about anxiety and depression among children and youth. Those were on the rise even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but kids and the grown-ups around them say the past two years have made things worse. From Vermont Public Radio, Anna Van Dine has this report.

ANNA VAN DINE, BYLINE: Ava Lamy (ph) feels like the world needs a lot of fixing. She feels it when she thinks about melting glaciers and plastic in the ocean, and lately, she's been feeling it at school.

AVA LAMY: We've had some fights at recess, some physical, some just yelling. And it really just - it gets you down sometimes.

VAN DINE: The 11-year-old lives in Hartford, a town of almost 10,000 people on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire. She's like a lot of kids. She goes to a dance class, likes science, has a little brother. She's in fifth grade at a small public school.

AVA: Some people just have a rough time at home, I think. It's not really any of my business. And there's other facts where some people just - they want to be tough because we're going through really hard things.

VAN DINE: That really hard thing is the COVID-19 pandemic. Ava says everything feels a lot bigger right now.

AVA: Because we have to focus on a lot at once. And since things can't really be the same because of COVID, of course, I think it just makes people more emotional and sensitive.

VAN DINE: Molly Farnham-Stratton says Ava's right. She's a therapist who works with young people at the Vermont Center for Anxiety Care.

MOLLY FARNHAM-STRATTON: Whether it's a small thing like a playdate, but they were looking forward to it for so long, and then somebody's sick, right? That kind of constant shifting, that, I think, is just exhausting.

VAN DINE: Farnham-Stratton says the impacts of disrupted networks are more acute for young people from certain backgrounds. She also says kids pick up on the stress of adults in their lives - Ava does. At school, she sees the strain on her teachers.

AVA: Like, there's the crinkle in their eyebrows. Their eyes look kind of distracted sometimes.

VAN DINE: On top of all of that, there are still the expectations of school, but disrupted schedules and pervasive anxiety can make meeting them feel impossible. Allison Hayes (ph) is an elementary school counselor in Vermont. She says kids often don't have the language to express what they're feeling or even to identify what that feeling is.

ALLISON HAYES: Anxiety, often for kids, comes out as a more aggressive behavior, irritability. And so it's quicker. Everybody's a little quicker to snap.

VAN DINE: Which could explain some of what Ava sees at recess. The thing that adults sometimes forget about being a kid is that, for what seems like a very long time, you're old enough to get what's going on but too young to do anything about it. Ava says she's in-between, which is a hard place to be.

AVA: I know lots of kids out there. They are feeling alone and crowded in this pandemic, like, both at the same time. Sometimes you need to give them space, and other times you just have to be there to support them.

VAN DINE: Therapist Molly Farnham-Stratton says one thing adults can do amidst all the uncertainty is to be honest and, in an age-appropriate way, explain a bit about what's going on. The pandemic's long-term impacts on young people won't be understood for a long time, but mental health experts say don't forget, kids are resilient. Some of those impacts will be challenges, and some could be strengths. For Ava, even though so many of the world's problems seem enormous, they aren't insurmountable.

AVA: I feel like there's a lot going on out there that we can actually fix.

VAN DINE: But, she says, it will take a lot of time. For NPR News, I'm Anna Van Dine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.