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How the Pandemic Affects Young Children’s Emotional Health

Watching for trouble and ways to help.

I was not expecting Tommy’s father to say, “Doc, I’m not sure that a hyperactivity attention diagnosis is right. He’s been a different kid in lockdown; he’s calmer and doesn’t need much discipline. His kindergarten teacher gives him projects online that he can’t wait to do, and he’s proud of what he does. We stopped his meds because he just doesn’t need them.”

We wondered together whether the relief of not being in school—where he struggles constantly and often feels ashamed of losing control—was an unexpected bonus.

“Are most of your patients doing OK, Doc?” Not really, I thought to myself. Most children are feeling a social ache from the absence of friends in their lives. They feel tested and anxious about what is happening to their world and their families. The ones who were suffering emotionally before COVID-19 don’t share Tommy’s silver-lining experience, and most of them are feeling anxious and sad about what they’ve lost.

Adults know and feel that this crisis is uniquely stressful; it’s global, it lasts month after month and no one knows when it will end, which is all mostly incomprehensible for children. A recent British survey of preschool parents found that three-quarters felt unable to balance work and childcare adequately in lockdown.* They worried most about their own work, their children’s screen time, and their children’s overall emotional health. While most children’s emotional distress doesn’t reach the threshold of requiring mental health intervention, we need to be vigilant about helping, and the earlier the better.

Here are four things that might require closer attention from caregivers and a possible discussion with a childcare provider, especially if they appear in clusters:

  • Persistent changes in sleep patterns or appetites;
  • Behavioral changes that seem out of character for a particular child, especially discouragement that lingers or motivation that seems to disappear for longer and longer stretches;
  • Increases in aggression above and beyond the typical sibling squabbles;
  • Frequent tearfulness, especially the out-of-nowhere variety.

Whether or not your child fits into any of those categories, there are strategies we can all use to reduce the negative effects of the pandemic and prevent them from undermining the critical social supports and reassuring rhythms of everyday life, both important developmental building blocks.

  • Set a routine that you review at the beginning of each day for eating, playing games and exercising, doing any "summer school" work (including games), screen time, personal hygiene, quiet time, and bedtime. Don’t overdo it by being rigid, and be prepared to abandon your plans for a better schedule as the day evolves. It’s starting and finishing together that matter.
  • Consciously start your day with the intent to remain calm, and breathe. Parental calm is the best antidote to pandemic stress, and it is often in short supply. It helps children cope and parents to de-stress in the moment. If it’s your natural temperament, you’re lucky. If it’s not, practice and breathe.
  • When meltdowns come, give your children a moment to collect themselves as you (calmly) join them at eye level and label the feelings they are struggling with as best you can (“You feel frustrated about…, angry with or hurt by … and you wish that …”). You’re not their therapist; you are their chief “understander.” When we are heard and understood, we all settle down.


*UK Research and Innovation:

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