During the pandemic, people are talking a lot about children.
They're talking about the older kids who've been robbed of proms and graduations, of levity and closure and in some cases plans for their futures. There's been plenty of talk about kids missing out on school, the ways in which they may fall behind, the challenges of remote learning ahead. Frustrated parents have repeatedly lamented the hardships of working at home with kids – scrambling for time, desperate for space, leaning heavily on screens they've long tried to limit.
What has received far less attention, child development experts say, is the impact the pandemic is having on the youngest children: babies, toddlers, preschoolers, kindergartners.
Birth to age 5 is a critical time for child development, research shows, and new data from the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development Early Childhood Household Survey Project (RAPID-EC Project) shows caregiver distress is cascading down to young children in ways science shows can be toxic in the short- and long-term.
"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," said RAPID project director Phil Fisher.
The RAPID-EC project was formed in March by leading early childhood advocates and researchers to study the impacts of the pandemic on children 5 years old and younger. Since researchers can't survey young children or study them in labs, the next best thing is to check in on the people caring for them, since research shows how closely connected the emotional well-being of a caregiver is to the emotional well-being of a child.
The project has been conducting weekly surveys since April and has found caregivers of young children are experiencing distress, material hardship and loss of emotional supports. Since the project's data is sequential, it also is able to show a chain reaction. When a family is stressed about meeting basic needs, the next week they report more emotional distress, and the week after report increases in their child's emotional distress.
"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," Fisher said.
Researchers have found caregiver well-being is tied to coronavirus infection rates in the state where they live. As a state's rate of infection climbs, so does caregiver distress. As it declines, well-being improves. The project also found:
68% of caregivers of young children report a significant increase in stress from before the pandemic.
63% of caregivers say they have lost emotional support.
20% of households are experiencing material hardship.
As of the last week of July, 78% of caregivers reported their child was exhibiting behavior problems.
"As much as the coronavirus has been a slow-moving catastrophe, what's going to happen to the next generation is going to be an even slower moving catastrophe," Fisher said. "It's going to be in three years when kids enter school and in five years when kids are going into high school, and in 20 years, when we start to see the health effects, increased rates of heart disease and diabetes from kids who lived through this extraordinary, stressful time."
The surveys found that caregivers in lower-income households report experiencing more depression and anxiety. Anxiety and stress among Black households was lower than the overall sample when the surveys began, but since May, when the death of George Floyd sparked racial unrest, the trend reversed. If it continues, Black caregivers’ anxiety and stress will soon be higher than the overall sample, Fisher said.
Experts say these trends do not bode well. Without intervention, many families of young children will suffer.
"My sense is that what is driving stress on parents is a combination of worry about contracting the virus; concern about how best to protect their children and elderly family members; and ongoing financial issues that are threatening their ability to meet basic needs," said Joan Lombardi, chair of the RAPID-EC National Advisory Group and former deputy assistant secretary for early childhood during the Obama Administration.
What happens at the beginning of a child's life is crucial to what comes after, research shows. Early emotional experiences become embedded in the architecture of children's brains, which is why the impact of COVID could have lifelong consequences.
A child's emotional well-being can impact everything from the formation of friendships and intimate relationships to whether they can hold a job. These years are critical to a child's ability to understand their feelings and to empathize with the feelings of others.
"The emotional health of young children – or the absence of it – is closely tied to the social and emotional characteristics of the environments in which they live, which include not only their parents but also the broader context of their families and communities," the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child wrote in a paper on children's emotional development.
Lombardi says RAPID's data should be a wake-up call for policy makers.
"Families across the country need action, they need continued unemployment benefits, housing and food supports," she said. "They need leadership that is committed to helping end this pandemic."
RAPID's researchers say the expiration last month of key pieces of The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act – which included extended unemployment insurance and a moratorium on evictions – will increase vulnerabilities for families with young kids. They're calling on lawmakers to enact policies that ensure these families can meet basic needs.
"The clock is ticking," Fisher said.
Alia E. Dastagir is a recipient of a Rosalynn Carter fellowship for mental health journalism. Follow her on Twitter: @alia_e
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID pandemic is taking a toll on families with young children