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Should We Worry About Children's Mental Health During COVID?

Helping our youngest stay emotionally safe now that COVID-19 is here to stay.

In six months, we’ve moved from intense worry about a sudden mysterious threat to our families’ well-being to now chronic worry about whether we are doing enough as parents to keep our children safe—physically and emotionally.

Gallup polls in May and August showed a steady climb in the percentage of parents who worry about their children’s mental health, with no sign of a decline. Parents see their toddlers and preschoolers throwing more tantrums, sliding backward in some of their previously passed developmental milestones (sleeping through the night, toilet training, etc.) and hungry for extra (sometimes constant) attention. A patient’s mother described her 26-month-old daughter in the following way: “Our most mellow child now has moments as the family banshee.” Another patient’s father found himself “surprised to see our self-possessed 3-year-old son become our worrywart.” While it’s unlikely that such changes are permanent, given the amazing plasticity of child development, they concern parents plenty and erode their confidence in their ability to keep their kids safe emotionally.

Parents—despite how corrosive COVID-19 can be to that confidence—have considerable power to keep those changes temporary. They can reassure their children: “It’s the grown-ups’ job to keep you safe and we are on it.” They can design and maintain routines that provide the essential comfort of the predictable in chaotic times. They can help their young manage their emotions by naming them: “I know that you really miss playing with your friends, and it makes you sad,” “All the masks are so confusing or scary,” etc. They can keep them busy playing, making things and doing musical stuff, all of which promote growth and coping at the expense of fear and confusion.

A big challenge during the pandemic has been toddlers and preschoolers and screen time. Most parents have (often in desperation) loosened their rules on access and feel guilty about doing so. Most of them know that too much is not good for their children, but what about video chatting with grandparents and friends? Is it worth the exposure? Georgetown University’s Rachel Barr studied this dilemma early in the pandemic and found that toddlers and preschoolers DO benefit from virtual social (and emotional) interactions, as long as the back and forth is contingent (responsive and interactive). They can participate on Zoom or FaceTime and remember and organize the experience in ways that are pleasing and comforting. Parental assistance in translating dropped words or phrases and facilitating attention and refocus are important, however, to the success of such conversations. Children this young can remember a peer’s or grandparent’s invitation from a previous virtual exchange to play or share, taking delight in being together virtually. For example, 28-month-old Stacey retrieved her teddy bear collection before a scheduled video chat with Grampa because last time they had played “bears go shopping” with his bears. The bottom line is it’s worth the effort, so ease up on the guilt.

Here are some other ways in which parents can keep their children’s mental health moving in the right direction in these bizarre times:

  • Turn up the expressed appreciation and physical affection for good (regulated) behavior when opportune. This is not a time to worry about spoiling your youngest. “You are a terrific dresser.” “I loved how you helped with the laundry.” This can’t be overdone in such a crisis. After the vaccine, you can return to expecting more;
  • Loosen your disciplinary grip and ignore jerky (but safe) misbehavior sometimes. It will remind you that ignoring the shenanigans usually extinguishes them sooner than if you get engaged;
  • Support reasonable efforts to socialize with peers and friends physically (when safe) and virtually whenever. Parents’ protective urges can drift into social isolation for the offspring, which will only sadden and upset them more.

This Emotional Well-Being Toolkit from the Illinois Governor’s Office is a good resource for more information.