One evening a little over two years ago, my daughter put on a show—not in the traditional sense, of course. My husband and I were out for sushi with my parents, and my daughter, just a little over a year old at the time, noticed she was getting a lot of attention from a group of women at a table nearby. They were fussing and cooing over her, and she was loving it. She was performing for them: reading their reactions and responding to them, making funny faces, clapping, and smiling.
Fast forward a year later.
One day, the telephone repair man made a visit to our home. My daughter and I were peacefully sitting watching cartoons in the living room. When she saw this man enter our house, her mood completely changed, and she became stone-faced.
The main difference between these two scenarios? The first was pre-pandemic. The second was in the midst of the pandemic.
“If your child did not show signs of nervousness prior to the pandemic but began exhibiting symptoms post-March 2020, I would lean toward the implication that these are pandemic-related nerves,” said Dr. Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist.
“However, you can’t beat yourself up about this fact as a parent because you made choices to try and protect your child the best you knew how at the time and you must look forward toward the future and shift your attention from ‘what caused it?’ to ‘how can we work to improve their mental health and ability to cope?’” Dr. Cook said.
My daughter is 3-and-a-half years old. Pre-pandemic, she never seemed fazed by certain sounds. She loved attention and loved being around others. Now, not so much. She gets nervous around people except for our immediate family. She gets nervous at the sound of a car passing or when our doorbell rings. Overall, she just seems nervous.
The Pandemic’s Toll on Children’s Mental Health
This is sadly not surprising. The pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of many individuals, children included. In an international survey of children and adults in 21 counties done by UNICEF and Gallup, according to early findings, an average of 1 in 5 young people between the ages of 15 to 24 surveyed said that they feel depressed.
There has also been an increase in mental health emergencies among children. Between March and October 2020, the percentage of emergency department visits for children with mental health emergencies rose by 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for children ages 12 to 17. There was also a more than 50% increase in emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12 to 17 in early 2021 as compared to the same period in 2019.
I am concerned that my 3-year-old daughter seems young to be showing signs of “nerves.”
“Research has shown that each of us carry parts of our personality in our DNA; the formal label for these traits is ‘temperament,’” Dr. Cook said. “Think about the variability in the personalities of newborn babies: one gets labeled as ‘good,’ ‘fussy,’ ‘happy,’ ‘cranky,’ and I’ve even heard ‘nervous.’ A child can exhibit signs of nervousness within the first year of life; the causation of this can be either genetic, environment, or both.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic has contributed to children showing more signs of being nervous for obvious reasons. My daughter is not around other people. She is not as exposed to different settings other than our home. In our home, with me and my husband, is where she feels safest.
A Contributing Factor That Surprised Me
Something I had never considered that could be contributing to children under the age of 5 feeling more nervous is mask wearing.
“I am 100% pro-mask and believe in their importance in fighting the pandemic,” Dr. Cook said. “That being said, children under 5 are currently missing out on being able to learn about and understand non-verbal facial cues. I believe this factors into some of the nervousness of children outside of home. They know that smiles mean one thing and frowns mean another, and when they are unable to read a room, it can create anxiety.”
I am 100% pro-mask and believe in their importance in fighting the pandemic… That being said, children under 5 are currently missing out on being able to learn about and understand non-verbal facial cues.
I am trying my absolute hardest to make my daughter feel safe. I’ve been protecting her ever since she was in my womb and will continue to do all that is in my power to make her feel happy, safe, and secure. Here are some words of advice on nurturing a nervous child.
How to Nurture a Nervous Child
Check Your Own Emotions
Dr. Cook said that a parent should “in-check” with themselves when it comes to how much of their own nervousness/anxiety is spilling out of them into the space around their kids. Young kids feel vibes, not words.
I am unfortunately very guilty of this, as I suffer from anxiety. To say that the pandemic has made it harder for me is an understatement, so perhaps it’s time to reconsider how much my daughter is picking up from me.
Teach Your Child How to Cope
When your child is feeling nervous/anxious, it’s important to teach them how to cope with those feelings. I’m a big believer in taking deep breaths when I feel nervous, so I’ve started telling my daughter to do the same.
“Tell them to ‘smell the flower and blow out the candle’ when they start to feel overwhelmed,” Dr. Cook suggested. “Get a feelings chart and ask them to point to the face that matches what they are experiencing, then say the descriptive word of that feeling. If we don’t give kids a vocabulary and understanding of the full range of human emotions, children tend to lump feelings into ‘good/bad,’ which isn’t helpful and becomes problematic as they get older.”
Model Appropriate Behavior
Children pick up on everything, including our behavior. So a good option is to model good behavior for them.
“What are some healthy coping skills you use to manage your nerves? Can you make them workable for your child?” Dr. Cook said. “When I’m nervous, I like to take deep breaths, or sometimes, I crank up the music in the house and have a mini-cabaret with myself. Verbalize with your children why you’re doing what you’re doing so they learn.”
Tell Your Child to Connect with You
Now, I want to make it clear that this is something that seems to be working for me with my 3-year-old daughter, so it’s worth trying. When my daughter seems overwhelmed or nervous, I try to have a moment with her, one on one, of deep connection. I will tell her to hold my hands and look into my eyes. Somehow, this seems to calm her down. Maybe it’s because she feels so connected to me, between our holding hands and locking eyes, but it creates a moment of peace.