covid stress toddler behavior

Living through a global pandemic has brought immeasurable levels of stress and anxiety into our daily lives. It's not just you, mama, it really is this hard. So many parents are worried about their jobs, finances and how to keep their children safe. Now, new research is warning that kids may be soaking up that stress if society doesn't start supporting parents.

Health experts are beginning to think about the impact parental pandemic stress is having on kids later in life and right now because many kids are acting out. Your toddler's tantrum may because of second-hand stress, mama. Parents need to know this and so do the politicians who represent them.

"There's no question that if you can't buy food or you can't pay your rent, that you are experiencing the kind of stress that is going to be toxic to your children," says Phil Fisher, the director of the RAPID-EC Project (which stands for Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development Early Childhood).

Fisher told USA Today that he believes children under 5 will deal with long-term consequences from what they're going through in the age of COVID-19. "The national conversation is not focused nearly enough on early childhood and infancy, which is the period that we know is most important for brain development and in which the brain is most effected by what's going on in the world around it," he explained.

He's basing this on RAPID-EC's weekly survey of households with kids under 5, which they've been doing so since April. The idea is to track how children are doing by assessing their parents—since the kids are too young to voice the issues they're facing.


Those surveys have captured some concerning trends. Moms and dads are worried about how to meet basic needs, like keeping food on the table and paying their rent. When those financial burdens are coupled with a lack of emotional support (like families who are no longer able to visit grandma and grandpa due to coronavirus risks), parents report that their stress levels shoot up—and that eventually has negative effects on their kids' behavior.

Researchers say it's a chain reaction: Little ones who are absorbing their parents' stress are then displaying emotional difficulties of their own.

Interestingly, however, kids fare better when their parents have a strong emotional support system to lean on—even if the parents are still facing major financial struggles. Researchers says that emotional support serves as a buffer, protecting "households with young children from the effects of stress resulting from material hardship even during the uncertainty and numerous challenges posed by the pandemic."

They warn, though, that the buffer can't hold forever: "The longer caregivers are uncertain about their ability to feed their family, keep a roof over their head, and keep the electricity on, the less likely that emotional supports will prevent these experiences from negatively affecting caregivers or children." Their solution is simple—though that doesn't mean it will be easy to enact.

The group is calling on lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to give Americans more financial relief, as well as protections from evictions. They say those measures are "absolutely essential to insure the wellbeing of young children during the pandemic," and a failure to act will expose the youngest Americans to chronic, ongoing stress. The cumulative effects of that stress can mean those children will grow up to face higher risks of depression and stress-related health problems including heart disease, diabetes and addiction, according to Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child.

The first stimulus checks sent out back in April are long gone by now—and negotiations on a second-round have been at an impasse for months. Not knowing when or even whether they'll get more help is making parents lives harder, and this new data proves it's time for lawmakers to step up—for the health and well-being of children everywhere.

Here's what to do if your child is picking up on your pandemic stress:

Try to take care of yourself: This can be incredibly hard if you don't have access to your support people due to quarantining or if you don't have health insurance. Check with therapists in your area about low or no-cost rates and set aside time to connect with friends and family over the phone. You deserve to be heard, mama.

Offer more affection: As psychologist and parenting coach Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg previously wrote for Motherly: "Children show their stress in different ways: throwing more tantrums, being more moody, irritable or defiant, or regressing in a particular area such as language or potty training. However your kids are showing that they're worried—or even if they are not yet—there is nothing more valuable than giving them a hug and letting them know you've got them and it's all going to be okay."

But sometimes mama needs a break: If you have a partner or another adult in your home this may mean that they take over caregiving to allow some alone time. If you don't have another adult in the home, try to steal a moment for yourself where you can, even if that means the laundry has to wait or the kids get a little extra screen time.

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