How has the pandemic affected young kids’ mental health?
After two years of shutdowns and stressed caregivers, the mental resiliency of very young children—infants to age 5—has been put to the test, says Christine Low, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and of pediatrics. Low, the chief psychologist at Bradley Hospital, studies early childhood mental health and developmental psychopathology, which examines biological and environmental factors that influence development and psychological well-being.
What’s interesting is the kids held it together. The first stress victims of COVID were the adults. They were directly impacted. Kids showed a nice amount of resilience early on. And now we’re seeing a true mental health crisis in our youngest children because their environments remain so disrupted. We always say they won’t remember this. But they do, and they will.
The kids in our early childhood outpatient clinic are talking a lot about disrupted sleep, poor eating habits, restricted outdoor play, and changes in the amount of peer interactions. They’re demonstrating increases in challenging behaviors, expressions of worries, anxiety, and separation challenges. And the adults who bring them in—whether they’re the birth parent, the foster parent, the grandparent—they’re having a hard time keeping consistent routines. We need to help get caregivers regulated and calm and think about basic routines so they can help their kids. If you don’t have a job and you’re worried about bringing food home, you’re not necessarily going to sit down and spend time playing with your kids, because you’re so stressed.
Children who are back in classrooms or education settings are doing well, as long as the programming is staffed with consistent adults. Stable caregiving is very important for young kids, whether at home or in their caregiving setting. The workforce is still very stressed and overwhelmed, which impacts the quality of care the kids are receiving. The behavioral health system, too, is having a hard time responding to the mental needs of little kids.
Infants and young kids are so dependent upon their social context for emotional security and healthy development. There is resilience if we invest in the adults who care for them, because they are only as good as the supports we give to their environment.