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Mental Health Awareness in Young Children

Classroom D at George Forbes ELC smiles in front of a banner that reads "Mental Health Matters"
Classroom D at George Forbes Early Learning Center

As we observe Mental Health Awareness Month, it is essential to shine a light on the often-overlooked mental health challenges faced by young children, particularly those in the preschool age group.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about significant challenges in the mental health landscape for children, with increased screen time playing a prominent role in these changes.

The impact of COVID-19 on children’s mental health

A doctor listens to a child's heart

Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a noticeable increase in mental health issues among children, including anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the proportion of mental health related emergency department visits among children ages 5-11 and 12-17 increased significantly during the pandemic. Professionals attributed this increase to the disruptions in daily life, including school closures, social isolation, and heightened stress levels.

While statistics specific to emergency room visits for children under the age of 5 were not readily available, experts believe that this age group was also impacted by the pandemic. Young children may have had difficulty understanding and coping with the changes brought on by the pandemic, leading to increased anxiety and other mental health issues.

“In the midst of the pandemic, too, the anxiety and depression felt by adults were not isolated emotions. They permeated households, affecting our children and families at large,” Sharon Thompson, Step Forward’s Early Childhood Inclusion Coordinator, explained.  “Marginalized communities, bearing the brunt of these mental health challenges, faced even greater burdens, amplifying the impact on already vulnerable low-income families.”

According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, early childhood trauma can also impact a child's mental health. Early childhood trauma refers to the traumatic experiences that affect children under the age of six. NTSM research showed that infants and young children were affected by events that threatened their safety or the safety of their caregivers, such as physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters, accidents, or war. Additionally, young children experienced traumatic stress due to painful medical procedures or the sudden loss of a parent or caregiver.

A child stares into the camera

The impact of mental health in young children in school cannot be overstated. For many children, school serves as a crucial environment for socialization, learning, and emotional development. However, disruptions caused by the pandemic significantly affected their mental wellbeing. Children struggled with feelings of isolation, anxiety about returning to school, and difficulties adjusting to new routines and safety protocols. These challenges manifested in various ways, including decreased academic performance, behavioral issues, and difficulty concentrating.

“It has been essential for schools and programs like Head Start to prioritize mental health support for young children and their families, ensuring they have the resources and assistance they need to thrive academically and emotionally,” Thompson said.

The role of screen time in children’s mental health

Increased screen time among young children has been an ongoing concern and one that stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic. With the shift to remote learning and limited social interactions, many children started spending more time in front of screens than ever before. According to a survey by the nonprofit Common Sense Media, the average daily screen time for children under the age of eight increased from two hours and 19 minutes in 2019 to three hours and 50 minutes in 2020. This increase in screen time was largely attributed to the use of devices for virtual learning, entertainment, and communication.

Children look at a tablet

While technology can offer valuable educational content and facilitate social connections, excessive screen time can have on a child’s mental health.

“Young children’s exposure to video and media can have a profound impact on their perception of reality and themselves,” Renata Turner, Step Forward’s Early Childhood Inclusion Coordinator, said. “With the rise of social media and online content, young children have been increasingly exposed to unrealistic portrayals of beauty, success, and lifestyles. This has led to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and poor body image.”

Children have struggled to differentiate between what they see online and reality, leading them to compare themselves to unrealistic standards. This constant comparison can erode their self-worth and contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that higher social media use was significantly associated with greater odds of perceived social isolation among adolescents.

The rise of online interactions has also been accompanied by an increase in online bullying, or cyberbullying, among children. According to a study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, about 28 percent of students in the United States between the ages of 12 and 17 reported being bullied online at some point in their lives.

“This form of bullying can have serious consequences on children’s mental health,” Turner said. “It is crucial for parents, educators, and policymakers to address cyberbullying and work towards creating a safer online environment for children.”

A child is on a laptop

For children ages five and younger, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to no more than one hour per day of high-quality programming. This recommendation is based on research that suggests excessive screen time has negative effects on young children’s development and mental health.

Head Start’s focus on mental health

Step Forward’s Head Start recognizes the importance of mental health in young children and families. The comprehensive early childhood education program provides a range of resources and support services to promote mental wellness and address mental health issues among children and families.

One of the key components of Head Start’s approach to mental health is the provision of mental health screenings and assessments for children. These screenings help identify potential mental health concerns early on, allowing for timely intervention and support. Additionally, Head Start can offer mental health consultations and referrals to mental health professionals for children and families in need of further assistance.

A teacher speaks with a child on the playground

Head Start also emphasizes the importance of social-emotional development in young children. Through its curriculum and activities, Head Start promotes skills such as self-regulation, empathy, and positive social interactions, which are essential for mental health and wellbeing.

“Head Start offers support services for the family, too,” Thompson explained. “We recognize that family wellbeing is closely linked to children’s mental health. These services may include parenting classes, counseling, and referrals to community resources, all of which are provided at no cost to income-eligible families.”

What parents can do

As parents, there are several steps you can take to support your child’s mental wellbeing, even at a young age:

  1. Limit screen time: Set limits on your child’s screen time and encourage other activities such as outdoor play, reading, and creative play

  2. Maintain a routine: Establishing a consistent daily routine can help provide structure and stability for your child, which can be especially beneficial during uncertain times.

  3. Encourage open communication: Create a safe and supportive environment where your child feels comfortable expressing their feelings and concerns

  4. Model healthy behavior: Children learn by example, so make sure to prioritize your own mental health and wellbeing.

  5. Seek professional help if needed: If you notice signs of persistent anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues in your child, don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional.

Signs and symptoms of mental health issues in young children, five years of age and younger, can vary depending on the child and the specific condition. However, some common signs that parents and guardians should watch out for include persistent sadness or tearfulness, changes in appetite or sleep, persistent fears or worries, frequent tantrums or outbursts, difficulty concentrating, physical complaints such as stomachaches or heartaches that do not have a clear medical cause, withdrawal from activities, and regression such as bedwetting or thumb-sucking, that they had previously outgrown.

“It’s important for parents to be aware of these signs and to seek help if they notice any concerning behaviors in young children,” Turner encouraged. “Early intervention can make a significant difference in the long-term mental health and wellbeing of children.”


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