We eat a pint of ice cream, forget the laundry in the dryer for two days, and find ourselves struggling to stick to any semblance of a routine. But how do babies and toddlers express their stress? Young children respond to stressful situations differently than older children or teenagers and often show their worries through their behavior.
During this time of COVID-19, home quarantine, and social distancing, young children and their grown-ups are feeling the strain but children ages 0-3 have a limited understanding of what is happening. They glean what’s going on around them by reading their caregiver’s facial expressions and body language. That makes it important for adult caregivers to regulate their emotional states (and faces, posture, etc.) as a first approach to helping baby feel calm and safe (McClelland, M.M., & S.L. Tominey, 2014).
We’ve been using this “oxygen mask” metaphor (put your own mask on first so that you can care for your child) almost daily for the last month. When asked what to do for young children during COVID, the answer is always to focus on parental well-being and self-care. Enough! you might be screaming (silently, of course, as you finally got the baby to sleep). It’s a win if I can just get my toddler out of his pajamas, and you want me doing yoga all the time?
If there was another way to ensure young children’s well-being without focusing on their parents’ behavior, we’d definitely shout it from the rooftops because parents have enough on their plates right now. That said, parent self-care doesn’t have to take a long time. Even 60 seconds of mindful breathing or pausing to drink a glass of water here and there throughout the day will help calm your nervous system, perhaps even more than forcing yourself to take an online yoga class.
With that suggestion out of the way, here’s what stress and anxiety might look like in your little one, and how you, yes, you, can help (after the pint of ice cream).
- Emotional dysregulation. Does your little one fall apart more frequently or cry for longer periods of time throughout the day? Do they startle easily or have a hard time engaging in play activities? Respond to your baby’s cries consistently and be aware of what messages you’re sending with your face and body. Take a moment to breathe and relax your shoulders and face before picking up and comforting your child. Strategies for keeping yourself emotionally regulated include taking breaks when possible and making time for your own emotional care and well-being through adult-to-adult support.
- Changes in sleep and eating habits. Sometimes babies and toddlers have sleep or feeding challenges when they are feeling stressed. As much as possible during this remarkably non-regular time, create and stick with regular routines as they help to comfort young children and make their days feel predictable. Offer healthy foods you know your child likes and don’t make a big deal of it if they eat more or less than usual. Also, that same snack of cheese cubes and cucumber might be boring to you day after day, but not to worry — if it’s healthy and well-received, keep offering it.
- Regression. Did your fully potty-trained child suddenly start having accidents again? Are you seeing clingy behavior when they used to play independently? It’s typical for young children to regress in these areas when they are stressed. Since the cause of the stress is known (ahem, global pandemic), the main thing you can do is take good care of yourself so you can remain calm and supportive while they regain their skills and abilities.
- Busy, busy, bodies. Where are they getting all this energy? If it seems your child is bouncing off the walls, that behavior could be driven by stress. Find some time to “join them in the play” where you can jump, dance, and twirl. Sometimes if you meet their exuberance, you can slowly bring down the pace to a dull roar. Try parent-child stretching, a jumping-jack contest, or a dance party. It may also help to schedule these big body movement breaks regularly throughout the day. One or two enthusiastic gross motor sessions a day might not be enough.
- Unusual themes in their play. Older toddlers and young preschoolers often work through their emotions and stresses in play. Don’t be surprised if your little one brings topics such as medical care, death and dying, or emergencies and superheroes to their play. Engage with your child around these themes, follow their lead in the play, and help them reach “resolutions” to their pretend problems. It may be wise to limit any news coverage your children are exposed to, even if they seem too young to comprehend the content. Even the tone of daily broadcasts can be anxiety-provoking — for them and for you, too.
As noted, young children do well when their adult caregivers do well, and many adults are experiencing high levels of stress and dysregulation during this unprecedented time of change and uncertainty. The more you can follow regular routines for yourself and your family, the better. Implementing those frequent short breaks and any additional mindfulness practices can help you stay calm and centered during this ongoing crisis as well. We can get through this, and you can be your own child’s first responder hero. Deep breaths.
Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW contributed to this post. Sarah is a social worker, parent educator, and author of the award-winning, bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children.
McClelland, M.M., & S.L. Tominey. 2014. The Development of Self-Regulation and Executive Function in Young Children. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.