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PERSPECTIVES—Supporting Young Children, Families, and Caregivers Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published online: September 24 , 2020

Joy D. Osofsky, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans

Abstract
Lessons learned from providing support to young children and families affected by natural disasters and other traumatic events can help in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the uncertain and invisible nature of the pandemic presents some unique challenges, early childhood professionals can draw upon proven practices to help families protect and support children. Effective practices include establishing new routines, managing challenging behavior, considering developmental needs, and processing grief and loss. The author suggests actions to take that foster resilience in the face of ongoing uncertainty.

Professionals who work with young children and their families have learned much over the years about ways to support children of all ages with preparation, response, and recovery following disasters. However, the COVID-19 pandemic introduces a new type of disaster unlike others as it is characterized by “indefinite uncertainty.” Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, earthquakes, or even tsunamis can be incredibly destructive, but they have beginnings and endings. The experience I have had with natural and technological disasters that comes closest to the COVID-19 experience is the effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. The perspectives that I learned in listening to the parents of young children as well as pediatric and mental health professionals may lend some insight related to ways to cope and be supportive around COVID-19 pandemic.

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Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, earthquakes, or even tsunamis can be incredibly destructive, but they have beginnings and endings.

During the nuclear disaster, families were concerned about their young children’s exposure to radiation because, despite being reassured that only a safe level of radiation was in the air where they lived, parents worried that being out and breathing the air would be harmful. They felt they needed to take control and they were concerned about a possible danger that could not be seen, so they obtained detector devices to measure the level of radiation themselves. In the area of Japan where I was working, just 45 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, parents and caregivers believed they needed to learn more and be more in control and safer by continually measuring the level of radiation, wearing long sleeves when they went outside, and taking other preventive measures such as always washing hands when they came inside. Further, they adjusted their lives to attempt to ensure more safety for themselves and their children by staying inside most of the time.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the danger is also invisible and therefore very difficult to control so that children and families need to find ways to take control that make sense to them such as washing hands, social distancing, wearing masks, and avoiding crowds. They also have to find ways to adapt, adjust, and live with the “indefinite uncertainty” which contributes to much anxiety. Fear of the unknown and a danger that cannot be seen can lead to fear and anxiety. The level of indefinite uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has not been experienced worldwide for many generations. And for too long in response to both natural and technological disasters, the needs of young children have been under-recognized because of the myths that they are too young to be traumatized, do not understand, and that they “will get over it.” However, consistent with previous work on trauma and disasters (Osofsky et al., 2015; Osofsky, 2011), the facts indicate that the impact on infants and young children from these frightening events ranges from changes in brain development for infants to behavior and emotion dysregulation for young children that is similar to the effects of trauma on young children.

With COVID-19, life and routines for children are very different, first with lockdowns, social distancing restrictions, school closures, virtual education, and now with the uncertainty about whether and in what ways preschools and schools will open. With the many restrictions and changes required to keep people safe, it may be very difficult to totally protect young children from experiencing at least some of the stress and anxiety of their parents or caregivers. When children older than 28 months experience trauma, they retain verbal recall of the event (Fivush, 1998). Those younger than 28 months have behavioral recall seen later in their play and in unexpected reenactments. My colleagues and I observed these behaviors and play vividly after Hurricane Katrina when, at the first opportunity after being displaced by the hurricane, the young children immediately played hurricane with blocks and other toys re-enacting their experiences of the storm.

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