For most people, this past year has caused a lot of anxiety and stress - and children are no exception. As life begins the slow process of normalizing, it’s important to address the impact of the year on your child’s mental health. To learn more about how to approach this critical, yet sensitive, subject with kids, we sat down with Sara Anderson, LCSW, Associate Director of Erikson Institute’s Center for Children and Families.
After a year of remote learning, what kind of impacts are we seeing on young children’s mental health?
We’re seeing several impacts. Some children have felt increased anxiety and depression because of the disruption of structure, routines and rituals, increased parental stress, worries about the pandemic and social issues, and lack of typical social-emotional experiences with peers and play.
How do these impacts manifest in young children’s behavior? What kind of behavior signifies that my child is anxious or stressed?
Behaviors signaling stress vary, but typically, you’ll see changes in their appetite, sleep and toileting behavior. You might also see changes in a young children’s emotional outbursts, or an increase in their clinginess or separation anxiety. Another way that’s often missed is when a child becomes less emotive, more independent, and sends confusing messages to their caregivers about their needs and wants.
Are there ways to mitigate some of the negative impacts this year has had on my child’s mental health? What can I do to help them at home and as they go back to school?
The most effective way is for caregivers to be consistent and attuned to their child’s needs and emotions. Children need to know that you’ve got this, you are in charge and they can turn to you to get their needs met and help manage their feelings. Some strategies at home might include:
● Maintaining predictability and structure to the day
● Providing transitional warnings between tasks, or forecasting what is coming next (“We are going to play with the blocks and then get ready for lunch.”)
● Being available to help young children manage their big feelings through coregulation, helping them make sense and organize their feelings by naming them and helping them through
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At what point should a parent seek professional help for their child’s stress and anxiety?
If there are changes in your child’s behavior (like the ones mentioned above) that persist over several weeks and don’t get better after using recommended strategies, parents should seek professional help. They should also seek help if children exhibit severe behaviors like head banging, hair pulling or biting and scratching atypical of their child’s age.
Where can parents find the appropriate professional support in Chicago? What kind of mental health services are available for young children here, and in CPS?
I’d first recommend parents to reach out to their pediatrician, but there are many options. For children 0 to 3 years, caregivers can access support through the Early Intervention system by locating a Child and Family Connection office in their area or calling 1-800-843-6154. For children older than 3, parents should reach out to their school district. For Chicago Public Schools, they can call the Office of Diverse Learner Support and Services (ODLSS) at 773-553-1800 to ask about support.
At Erikson Institute, our Center for Children and Families works with caregivers and their children (ages 0-8) to help them understand the meaning behind their child’s behavior and how to best support them. To learn more, call 312-709-0508 for English, and 312-934-6446 for Spanish.
Sara Anderson, LCSW, is the associate director of Erikson’s Center for Children and Families, where she trains, consults and counsels families and students on a wide range of child development issues. Sara holds a Master’s in clinical social work from the University of Chicago, and a certificate in infant mental health from Erikson Institute.