Early Childhood: Five ways you can help mitigate kids’ stress from the last year

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Jackie Mader

By Jackie Mader

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the many families with young children who are still struggling to make ends meet. While some families are getting help with material needs from local organizations and schools, many children and their parents may need more holistic support, including mental health services.
Parents, especially moms, have been stressed during the past year and that stress can trickle down to children, impacting behavior and health. And while policies and programs that lessen stressors can help, some child development experts say there are also simple things caregivers can do to mitigate some of pandemic’s impact on children, especially when it comes to isolation or trauma. Most kids will be fine even after facing stress, said Stephanie Jones, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and faculty co-director of the school’s Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative. But, “there are very subtle things that can maintain equilibrium that keeps children going.”
Here are some of those main suggestions from experts:

  1. Be responsive: When a baby cries or babbles or a toddler says a few words and the caregiver responds back in a “loving, supportive” way, “the baby’s brain is literally being strengthened,” said Rahil Briggs, national director of HealthySteps, a pediatric care program. That includes things like paying attention to what the child is focused on, acknowledging what a child is doing and giving children opportunities to respond. The ability to do this “serve and return” type of interaction is especially important during the first three years during the peak of brain development; but it can be harder for caregivers dealing with their own stress, depression or trauma, which is why supporting caregivers is so important, Briggs added. While there’s no magic number of minutes caregivers should aim for when interacting with their children in this purposeful way, Briggs said caregivers should look for simple ways to add in “language-rich” moments, like narrating their daily activities, reading books and singing songs. Caregivers can start with just five minutes each day and work up to longer time periods.

  2. Share information: Being transparent with kids, at an appropriate level for their age, can lessen anxiety kids may feel — especially as restrictions lift and schools reopen. “What children do in absence of information is they fill in the gaps with their imagination,” said Shalyn Bravens, who directs several early childhood and family programs for United Way for Greater Austin. “They fill it in with the worst-case scenario.” Bravens said it’s normal to see some regression, especially in kids from birth to age five, when there are transitions approaching. But talking through these changes can help. “Explain what’s going on,” Bravens said. “What’s really stressful for kids is not knowing what’s going on.” Parent-coaching programs like Bright by Text and home-visiting can be especially helpful for parents to get support with this, she added. Keeping solid routines can also be critical, said Jones of Harvard, so children know what to expect in the face of changes and stress.

  3. Help children share their feelings: Children tend to express their emotions through actions and behavior, which may not always be safe or constructive, said Donna Housman, founder and CEO of the Housman Institute, which focuses on emotional intelligence. “What we want to do is re-channel that into words,” she said. Helping children name their emotions, including anger, sadness or fear, and giving them language to express their feelings can help children process and regulate those emotions. “There will be a time when the adult or parent isn’t present and we want our children to have these skills so that they can do this on their own and feel strong and secure.” This could be especially important as children go back to group care and feel separation anxiety, said Linda Smith, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s early childhood initiative.

  4. Play: A recent report found play is so powerful it can close achievement gaps between young children. Play also helps children process feelings and develop social emotional skills. For preschoolers, even just playing with one other child outside in a park can be beneficial, helping children process their emotions and learn important skills, Briggs said. 

  5. Realistic self-care: During the pandemic, parents have been inundated by suggestions to practice “self-care,” sometimes in ways that can feel impossible while juggling jobs and child care. “It feels like another thing to do for parents,” said Stephanie Jones of Harvard. “It’s hard in the best of times,” she added, let alone during a pandemic. Instead, caregivers should look for “small things that can help get through the day,” like taking five minutes to drink a cup of coffee, or sitting down quietly even for just a minute. “Those very small things are doable and they can impart a kind of calming that can get you through the next two hours.” That calming affect can then have an impact on children. To be clear, this is just a small piece of the puzzle, she added. Families need financial support and help with other stressors to stabilize their lives.
More on children’s mental health

This story by Christina Caron for The New York Times dives into signs of stress and anxiety in young children and how to help children cope.

This story by Leah Gullet for Kaiser Health News looks at how toddler development has been impacted during the pandemic.

 Research Quick Take 

Many measures of well-being for children showed improvement between 2010 and 2019, with fewer children living in poverty, fewer teens in school and not working and more fourth-grade students proficient in reading. However, that progress could be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, especially if “innovative public policy” is not established, according to the 2021 Kids Count Data Book, released late last month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Researchers looked at various data points related to family and community, health, education and economic well-being. Massachusetts and New Hampshire are the two top-ranking states when it comes to overall child well-being. Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico are the lowest ranked states. Inequities in child well-being are especially prominent for Black, American Indian and Latino children.

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