By Nancy Osbrn, Ph.D., Psychologist/Trainer
The COVID-19 crisis has brought concerns for mental health issues to the forefront for almost everyone. However, one group that is often overlooked is the very young.
Often it is difficult for parents, child care providers, and other caregivers to realize that even preschoolers can meet the diagnostic criteria for certain mental health disorders. For many adults, it is hard to believe that children under the age of five can develop cases of clinical depression and clinical anxiety that require professional help.
So, how do you know if a young child needs help?
It may be confusing to spot the difference between a normal response to the sudden changes we are all experiencing, and the more dramatic symptoms connected to a clinical illness. As a result of COVID-19, almost everyone is feeling more vulnerable, worried, and afraid.
In the context of COVID-19, it is normal for preschoolers to exhibit anxiety or even depressed behavior because of the multitude of sudden changes to their routine and their environment. Right now, their parents may also exhibit a variety of emotions and they may express more frustration than normal from changes at work and home. Parental changes naturally impact a young child’s emotional status.
How can parents determine the difference between normal emotional reactions and a possible mental health disorder when nothing seems normal and everything seems changed?
As with all clinical disorders, a professional diagnosis involves identifying a certain number of symptoms that are exhibited, understanding a certain length of time that the symptoms have persisted, and evaluating the degree in which an individual’s day-to-day functioning is impacted.
During the pandemic, emotions run high and some people describe feeling like they are caught on a roller coaster of up-and-down emotions. The ability to function as usual is being impacted across age groups, but a definite external stressor is causing the situation. For most of us, feeling anxious, afraid, angry, frustrated, and many other emotions is a normal response that is easily explained. As long as individuals are generally able to function most of the time under these stressors, they would not meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis.
The same is true for preschoolers. Tantrums, withdrawal, and behavioral regression are an expected response to changes in environment, schedules, and routines. However, if your little one shows consistent tendencies to be anxious or depressed, you need to pay close attention.
Some symptoms associated with childhood anxiety and depression include (but are not limited to) the following:
If your child showed these tendencies prior to the pandemic and now you are observing even more significant concerning behaviors, it would be wise to get an evaluation. Early interventions can assist in improving developmental outcomes which leads to a better future for your child.
In addition to the child’s health, pay attention to the health of your child’s caretaker — especially if that primary caretaker is you. Infants and young children are especially vulnerable because they have to rely on others to take care of them. Caretakers help influence how children respond to situations that occur in their lives. Children will show more resilience if their caretakers help them feel safe and pay attention to fulfilling the needs of their emotional and social development.
What can caretakers do to help kids?
If any adult or child is so overwhelmed that their functioning has significantly decreased, an evaluation by a medical or mental health professional is recommended. More resources are available through telehealth than ever before.
This article was originally published on Health Forward Foundation's blog.