For Small Children, This Year’s Holiday Season May be Both Fun and Stressful. Early Childhood Experts Share Some Coping Tips.

A mother and child participating in the early childcare program sponsored by UnidosUS Affiliate East Coast Migrant Head Start. Photo by Jayme Gershen.

Holiday Season is underway, and while it should be a time of great joy and relaxation, it also can bring a spike in anxiety for many young children. This can be cause by something as simple as the change in daily routine, or by more complex  family stressors such as the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, and a tense political climate. This year, experts at childcare centers across the UnidosUS’s national Affiliate network have seen a lot more signs of stressed-out children, but they’re also finding techniques and resources to help. reached out to several early childhood experts in its network to learn more about how caregivers on the home front can try some of the same strategies. The first step is recognizing how prolonged stress manifests itself in small children.

“Over the last year, we have seen an increase in a whole plethora of mental health issues in our children,” says Dr. Sharon Berg, director of clinical development at the Para Los Niños early learning center in Los Angeles, a program serving mostly Latino children. “Whether it be due to fear of deportation, social inequity, racism, and the concern of contracting COVID 19, our children are understandably feeling more anxious.”

Staff at Para Los Niños and the Washington State Affiliate Inspire Centers have noted increased signs of aggression such as temper tantrums, biting, kicking, and hitting, shutdown behaviors including withdrawing from social interaction, sleep disturbances such as nightmares or difficulty falling asleep, and even regression in toilet training and other developmental areas.

“At Inspire Development Centers, our children are experiencing the same stress levels as other children across the UnidosUS National Affiliate network,” says Rick Garza, director of operations at Inspire Development Centers. “To relieve stress and anxiety, children are provided with early learning kits filled with resources that make learning at home a fun experience. As centers have had to close due to coronavirus risk factors, Inspire has provided children iPad tablets loaded with early learning links and fun activities, including Wi-Fi so that teachers can interact with them while children are at home.”

During this holiday season, families looking for ways to address these issues on their own can start by taking cues from the hard-won wisdom these professionals have been gaining at their childcare centers throughout the pandemic. For example, two ways to destress kids that have proven effective are engaging them in movement-based activities and reflective storytelling.

Movement, says Berg, is a means of “calming their bodies when they are having big feelings.” But caregivers must also move, she says.

“The best treatment approach with young children is a didactic,” she says. “Helping the parent to stay regulated themselves and to create a calming environment where they can help the child to calm their body.  The parent uses themselves to reflect the child’s feelings and attune to the emotional needs of the child.”

Storytelling also helps the children get into a routine and better manage the confusion of the world they’re in, Berg adds. In the Para Los Niños program, early childhood instructors use books and oral storytelling as a tool of reflection and positive action.

“Whether it’s supporting routines, normalizing wearing a mask, or talking about home and school family, teachers utilize puppets and other age-appropriate items to help bring these stories to life for the children,” says Berg.

And even though the holidays might break up the day-to-day norm of the rest of the year, it’s easy to incorporate therapeutic storytelling and conversation around obvious rituals such as meals and bedtimes, says Bob Stechuk, UnidosUS’s director of early childhood education.

“Have conversations during mealtimes, that allow for both ‘happy’ and ‘thankful’ or ‘sad’ information,” he says.

At other points in the day – perhaps before or after that meal – children might appreciate an Internet investigation focused on holiday fun, Stechuk says. That might include searches on snow festivals, holiday lights around the world, or even beaches, since many parts of the world – perhaps in the homelands of some children’s families – might be experiencing summer during this time of year.

It’s all about harnessing everyday activities as rituals that create a sense of safety and security, while also providing opportunities for joy and wonder.

“When crises occur, it is very common to have breaks in routine but re-establishing a routine provides a sense of safety and stability for children. Routines help them to feel a sense of predictability in their world, and reduce anxiety,” says Berg.

Finally, books and videos can be helpful tools, although they’re still hard to come by in languages other than English, which can present a challenge to Latino families whose first language is Spanish. Two sites that do offer video content in both languages are Sesame Street in Communities, which is based on the public television program’s many decades of experience in helping children grow through good times and bad ones, and Piplo Productions, whose express mission is to “help children and families recover after stressful events by using clinical psychology and cute characters.”

And while current delays in the mail system can make it hard to order books quickly, Berg says it’s easy to find videos in English and Spanish narrating some of the best kids’ stories for calming and reassurance. She created the following list of those that can be found in either language simply by Googling the names and authors, then adding “in Spanish” to the search, and clicking on videos.

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

Little Monkey’s One Safe Place by Richard Edwards

The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

Love You Forever by Robert Munsch

Guess How Much I love You by Sam McBratney

Same Difference by Calida Garcia Rawles

It’s Okay to be Different by Todd Parr

Whoever You Are by Mem Fox

Hairs/Pelitos by Sandra Cisneros

The Family Book by Todd Parr

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, Ruth E. Harper and Nancy M. Leak

And what are some things parents can do to mitigate their own stress and advocate for their families after their kids are tucked away for the evening?

UnidosUS, its Affiliate network, and its partners such as the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI) want the public- especially parents – to consider just how much professional caregivers do in alleviating their childcare needs, helping their kids grow and learn, and offering proactive parental strategies like the ones mentioned above. In fact, a helpful anxiety-reducing activity for parents might be to raise awareness about the needs of early childhood educators on social media or by writing letters to elected officials. Last month, UnidosUS and NBCDI published a joint statement that can easily be shared on social media or attached in an email to aid in that effort.

“Research shows that early childhood is a critical time for brain development and stable connections with caregivers are extremely important. The landmark publication Preventing

Reading Difficulties pinpointed the preschool period as the time when children develop the skills, knowledge, and attitudes (‘early literacy skills’) that are foundational to reading success,” says the document. “For those families who have provided care and education at home, the disruption in ECE will impact their children’s development and learning. The effect of trauma and social isolation for countless children during this time heightens the need to support a diverse and well-qualified ECE workforce.”

Both organizations are concerned that vast racial disparities exist in the access to early childcare because many parents of color are essential workers who rely on affordable childcare while they’re on the job, but struggle to find it. Concerns about COVID-19 health and safety, combined with a faltering economy, have forced many of these centers to close, and it’s a lot harder to engage babies and toddlers in full-day virtual learning than it is children enrolled in K-12 schools. Plus, many of the childcare professionals who work so hard to provide these services are themselves Black and Latinx and often face similar problems, the statement explains.

“Before the pandemic, there were major racial disparities in children’s access to high-quality ECE that meets their cultural and linguistic needs and enables their parents to work,” the statement continues. “As we rebuild the economy after COVID-19, this country has the opportunity to lay the foundation for a stronger child care industry with equal access to high-quality ECE.”



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