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.
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“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 required to flatten the curve of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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% of students surveyed reported having depressive symptoms, and 18.9% 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 conclude.
The worldwide lockdown of public spaces and schools, while essential in stopping 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 the quarantine.
“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 is also 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 mom and dad’s room.
“It makes a lot of sense that children do that because of how overwhelming it is,” Goslin said.
Beleaguered caregivers are increasingly turning to their preschools for help.
“One 3-year-old woke up from a nap and asked if his teacher is mad at him,” wondering why he’s not in school, said Niloufar Rezai, director of Child and Family Development Resource Center at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Dr. Dara Richards, chief medical officer at Southwest Community Health Center in Bridgeport, said children, in particular, are vulnerable to the struggles of adapting to life in quarantine.
“Our behavioral health therapists are reporting that the lack of structure and support that was provided by day care or school has prompted or exacerbated psychiatric symptoms such as increased anxiety, anger outbursts and reactivity toward others,” Richards said. “This is more pronounced in children with diagnosed mental health disorders such as autism, ADHD, psychosis and mood disorders.”
Across the state, parents say they see unexpected behavioral traits in their children. Cate Vallone, a Pilates instructor and single mother in Hartford, is overwhelmed by the new struggles of her preteen daughter Camilla.
“Most of the time, my 9-year-old is behaving like she is in middle school,” Vallone said. “Of course, it’s something I knew was coming, but I didn’t think it was a light switch that just turned on suddenly. She rolls her eyes. She gives me attitude. She tries to blame everything on me. And then after five or so days of us barely hanging on like that, all of a sudden she will walk into the kitchen with her arms out and say ‘I need a hug.’ And then just start crying on my lap when I sit down to hug her.”
The times that she’s broken down, Vallone said, Camilla didn’t want to talk. “She stays with me for the rest of the night and will watch TV and snuggle like we did before the isolation began,” Vallone pointed out. “After a safe night’s sleep, she’s back to her self-isolation from me.”
Parents are also feeling the pressure as financial, emotional and physical stressors rise. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 45% of adults in the United States reported that worries surrounding COVID-19 had impacted their mental health.
Heather Bassett, mother of Colby, 6, and Cooper, 2, broke down one night of the lockdown. Bassett teaches early childhood education at Mitchell College in New London and is an adjunct at Three Rivers Community College and Eastern Connecticut State University. Additionally, she runs a real estate business from home, without which, she said, she’d “be up a creek without a paddle financially.”
Cooper had repeatedly been asking to “go, go, car,” and Colby, who “hates this stupid virus,” has been increasingly unhappy at not knowing when COVID-19 will disappear.
“This is a very difficult time to be a parent of young children,” Bassett said. “Society is like, ‘OK, work from home.’ So, I'm running my household, doing laundry, dishes, dinner and lunches. All of that, and I’m expected to do the same kind of work that people without children, or with grown children, are doing. My frustration with that is mounting. At Zoom meetings, I don’t show my face anymore. I don’t have my mike on.”
Bassett said she tries hiding her stress from her children but is sure it’s coming through.
Tania Banks, 24, a single mother of two in Hartford, lost two of her five part-time jobs due to COVID-19.
“On a scale of one to 10, my stress levels are at nine,” Banks said. “One of the jobs I lost paid $23 an hour, and that’s a big impact on my income. On top of that, the kids get antsy being in the house all the time, and I get judged when I bring them outside, but it’s like what do I do? I'm eight months pregnant.”
Are you or your child feeling anxious? 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 Scholastic Collaborative 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. Download at the Collaborative’s website.
• 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.
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (c-hit.org), a nonprofit news organization dedicated to health reporting.