Weeks into staying home from preschool, Betty, 4, threw herself on the floor and had a screaming meltdown. She had had a Zoom meeting with her class earlier that day, and every little thing was setting her off.
“We don’t accept screaming in our house,” said Betty’s mother, Laura Bower-Phipps, professor and coordinator of elementary education at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. “So, we counted the screams, and when she hit three, my wife and I told her she needed to take a break for four minutes.” Betty took the break, came back and screamed three more times, and again went to her quiet spot for another four minutes.
And so, it went on.
Parents, pediatricians and child psychologists across Connecticut are reporting an increase in tantrums, nightmares, and regressive behavior, weight gain and mood swings among toddlers and young children. The mental health struggles spring from school closures and social distancing measures implemented to try to flatten the curve of the spread of the coronavirus.
A study released this month in JAMA Pediatrics on the mental health status of children confined at home during the coronavirus outbreak in the Hubei Province of China, where the infectious disease originated, found that 22.6 percent of students surveyed reported having depressive symptoms, and 18.9 percent had symptoms of anxiety.
“During the outbreak of COVID-19, the reduction of outdoor activities and social interaction may have been associated with an increase in children’s depressive symptoms,” the authors concluded.
The worldwide lockdown of public spaces and schools, while essential in slowing the spread of COVID-19, is proving to be the 21st century’s great social experiment on the long-term implications of social isolation on the mental health of children. National and local experts say the distress in children is made worse by the uncertainty surrounding the duration of pandemic measures.
“The level of disruption COVID-19 is causing is what is considered toxic stress,” said Dr. Robert D. Keder, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
“Children have used up their emotional reserves, and with some, we see them falling apart at the smallest of things. It is really testing everyone, especially parents,” said Keder, who also is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
Megan Goslin, a clinical psychologist at Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, has observed that some children who had been potty-trained are having more accidents, and kids who were sleeping independently are now sneaking into their parents’ room.
“It makes a lot of sense that children do that because of how overwhelming it is,” Goslin said.
Here’s a partial list of mental health services for families:
Connecticut Children’s pediatric COVID-19 hotline: 833-226-2362.
Child care for essential workers during COVID-19: state of Connecticut portal.
Child care for health care and first responders: 860-756-0864.
Parents and caregivers who are worried about routines, their children and finances can call 860-882-6405 to speak with Lisa Backus, a clinical psychologist at The Village for Families and Children in Hartford, on Mondays 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Tuesdays 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Wednesdays 1 to 5 p.m.
For parents and caregivers who need someone to listen, to understand and to talk your feelings out, the state of Connecticut offers the “When it builds up, talk it out line” at 833-258-5011.
For referrals to counseling services for adults, children and youth, call 2-1-1 of Connecticut.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a Disaster Distress Helpline for 24/7 counseling and support for individuals who are distressed by natural or human-made disasters. Call 1-800-985-5990 to talk to a crisis counselor.
The Yale Child Study Center and ScholasticCollaborative for Child and Family Resilience has a free downloadable workbook in English and Spanish titled “First Aid for Feelings: A Workbook to Help Kids Cope During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” by Denise Daniels.
The Child Mind Institute offers bereavement and grief support with a grief counselor for those who have lost a loved one due to COVID-19: 212-308-3118.