Pouring From An Empty Cup: Caring For Young Children During A Pandemic

empty cup mental health

by Mackenzie Soniak, PsyD
Director, Partners for Early Attuned Relationships (PEAR) Network, South Carolina Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health

COVID-19 blog series

“I’m just pouring from an empty cup.” This widespread feeling continues to be shared among adults as they reemerge from a year defined by loss, routine changes, stress and anxiety. The COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark on everyone, but adults connected to infants and young children have the added responsibility of buffering the impacts of the pandemic on this vulnerable population.

In the first three years of life, more than 1 million neural connections are formed every second. These connections are shaped through interactions with caregivers and the environment. Infants and young children rely on nurturing relationships with reliable adult caregivers to achieve optimal health and social-emotional development. But stressors, such as job loss, housing or food instability, pandemic fatigue, health anxiety and grief, can make it more challenging for adults to respond with consistency and predictability. Prolonged stress and instability can have a lasting impact on infants and young children’s growth, development and mental health.

With many adult caregivers struggling to mitigate the impact of stress and daily routines in fluctuation, studies have recently emerged demonstrating varying impacts of the pandemic on the mental health of children; however, there is scant data demonstrating impacts on children under the age of 6. While many of these studies have documented concerns, it is acknowledged that these consequences do not appear evenly across all populations—that is, some groups are more likely to experience longer lasting effects of the pandemic than others.

Fortunately, the effects of the pandemic, or any stress in early childhood, is not permanent. In fact, it is essential that as a society we hold hope of future wellness for ourselves and our children. Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician and professor who leads Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, explains in responding to the pandemic, “Whatever we do has to be done by empowering and enhancing the ability of the adults who care for them to be able to provide that kind of environment.” In order to support the children, we must provide support for the adults who care for them.

Partners for Early Attuned Relationships (PEAR) Network is an infant and early childhood mental health consultation program through South Carolina Infant Mental Health Association (SCIMHA). PEAR Network pairs mental health professionals with adults who work with and care for infants and young children in settings such as early care programs. This individualized and collaborative approach aims to understand children’s severe and persistent behaviors as a communication of unmet needs to be understood, connected and protected by their caregivers. PEAR Network utilizes the unique strength and reminds caregivers they have the tools to facilitate healthy social and emotional development. This statewide program is available free of cost. Information about mental health consultations can be found, and service requests can be made at https://www.scimha.org/PEAR-Network.

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