Parenting has become more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, but developmental and clinical psychology provides insight on how to adapt to the circumstances, according to experts at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
“Caregivers need to be aware that children’s distress about the pandemic can manifest in a wide variety of ways, some of which will not appear to be related to the pandemic at all,” Moore and Tennant wrote in a recent Baker Institute blog post.
Young children may not be capable of accurately describing their feelings about the stresses of homeschooling, stay-at-home orders and general uncertainity, but Moore and Tennant suggest looking at behaviors to identify what children need. Possible signs of stress include increased or decreased sleep and appetite, clingy or whiny behavior and decreased interest in favorite activities.
“Even though children may experience the stressors of this pandemic differently than adults, caregivers need to understand that it is important to tune in to their children’s experience,” they wrote. “For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one study found that in cases where mothers perceived their child’s experience of a disaster to be less stressful than the child’s actual experience, those children exhibited more symptoms related to post-traumatic stress.”
Moore and Tennant share the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Essentials for Childhood framework as a guide to create positive development environments, stressing safety, stability and nurturing. The framework “provides a minimum standard of what children need for positive and healthy development and a way for caregivers to structure their thinking about how to provide for and interact with their kids during a crisis,” they wrote.
“This pandemic has impacted the world, and families everywhere are adjusting to a new way of life. Young children do not express their concerns, anxieties and fears the same way as adults, and understanding how to interpret the signs of their distress and respond appropriately is important for infant and child mental health,” they concluded.
Moore is the fellow in child health policy at the Baker Institute. Her research focuses on developing empirically informed policies to advance the health of children. Moore utilizes mixed methodologies, including community-based participatory research and surveys, to gain insight into the health needs of communities and to develop data-driven, tailored health policy recommendations.
Tennant is a project manager focusing on children’s mental health at the Baker Institute’s Center for Health and Biosciences and a project manager of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. His work in the mental health field as a researcher, evaluator, consultant and clinician has focused on combining methodological and analytic rigor with direct clinical experience to bridge the gap between research and practice.