The COVID Pandemic and Its Effects on Young Children

Contributor: Elise Herman, MD, KVH Pediatrics

As the COVID pandemic drags on, it can feel increasingly difficult to stay positive, and parents of young children may be noticing the effects on their child’s moods. Even preschoolers may be feeling the loss of their usual routine. They may be missing their social contacts at preschool or daycare, as well as interactions with extended family. Kids often pick up on parents’ stress, which may include worries about employment, working from home, managing on-line schooling for older kids, and perhaps food and housing insecurity.

Some young children may become more withdrawn, or have difficulty sleeping or eating. They may be quieter, more “down”, and not seem engaged. Young children may not be able to verbalize their feelings of uncertainty and loss, but may show this instead by increased irritability, difficulty handling frustration and being quicker to anger. How can we help our young children right now?

It is important to find time to talk with your child and encourage them to share how they are feeling. You don’t need to (and really can’t) solve all the issues, but just listening and empathizing can be powerful. Emphasize that your child is not alone, and you are there to keep them safe.

Encourage activity, especially outdoors, which we know is good for everyone’s mental health. Be it walking (maybe with that pandemic puppy?), bike riding, jumping rope, or playing in the snow, make sure your child is exercising regularly, ideally outside. Computers and electronics are a big part of life in this pandemic (even for some young children) but time away from ‘screens’ is crucial for all of us.

Help your child to look towards the future. There will be a time when kids can once again fully go to school, play with friends and see extended family. It is ok to talk about what you all might do in the future and how great it will be!

Guide your child in managing their frustration and anger. Kids should know that anger is normal, but it is how we handle it that is important. Be a good role model when you yourself are stressed or upset. Use techniques your child can emulate such as counting to 10, taking deep breaths, or going for a quick walk. Help kids to name their feelings (mad, angry, upset, etc.) and suggest ways to deal with these big emotions. Kids can make a ‘mad drawing’ and rip it up, pound some Playdoh or run around outside. Help your child to recognize when they are starting to feel upset so they can handle things before they are in a full meltdown. Do they feel hot? Do they clench their fists? Do they start to speak louder and faster? As your child becomes aware of early signs of anger, they will find it is easier to calm down before feeling totally out of control.

If your young child seems persistently down, irritable and unable to enjoy things as they did previously, they may be truly depressed. They may also frequently complain of not feeling well, particularly headaches and stomachaches. Depression can affect anyone, and though it is less common in young children, the pandemic is felt to be causing depression even in preschoolers. Discuss your concerns with your child’s healthcare provider. A counselor who is comfortable with children may be very helpful, and there is evidence that helping a young child who may be depressed can decrease the risk of long-term problems.