A pre-pandemic playgroup | Image provided by First 5 Humboldt

Early in the pandemic, when many of us became worried about potential food shortages (remember the panic shopping?), Katie Allen started to get very strict about rationing food for her family, limiting her children’s snacking. Then she realized that her children, too, were becoming worried  about not having enough food — a feeling that Allen did not want to pass on to her kids. 

Allen — a specialist in infant and early childhood mental health  — says that it is common for children to pick up on their parents’ stress and that the mental health and well-being of the parent is critically linked to the mental health of the child. “A young child is so reliant on their parent, that it kind of goes hand in hand,” she told the Outpost in a phone interview on Wednesday.  

Of course, it has been especially difficult for parents to manage their stress over the last year, with the pandemic disrupting most of our usual routines and compounding many of the worries of day-to-day life. Schools and daycare facilities had to close or reduce capacity, many parents found themselves out of work or suddenly working from home and most parents have been isolated from their family and friends who might usually lend a hand with the kids.

“I think parents in our community have been affected [by the pandemic] in a big way,” Allen told the Outpost. “A lot of parents I work with have had their support systems ripped away and they have been under a tremendous amount of stress — trying to do it all.”

This is why Allen, along with several other specialists, has been hosting free online parenting circles through First 5 Humboldt — an organization dedicated to promoting healthy development of young children. These parenting groups offer an opportunity for parents to learn about early childhood development, ask questions about their specific challenges and also connect with other families during this difficult time. The next group session is called  “Pandemic Parenting,” which will be held over three Zoom sessions and focus on the child-rearing challenges of the COVID-era.

“A lot of parents I work with have had their support systems ripped away and they have been under a tremendous amount of stress — trying to do it all.”

In particular, Allen said, this series will focus on the next phase of the pandemic and some of the anxieties that parents may be feeling about returning to “normal” activities. As vaccines roll out, schools and childcare facilities reopen and we move into the warmer months of the year, many families want to start bringing their children together. However, Allen said, this can cause a lot of stress for the parents, especially with very young children, who tend to put their hands and mouths on everything, including each other. “Toddlers and preschoolers don’t really understand social distancing,” Allen said. “I see that being a huge stress for parents right now.”

One of the other topics that will be discussed is identifying and addressing the signs of regression in children. Allen works with families through First 5 and does social work at Ferndale Elementary and Eureka City Schools, and says she has noticed an uptick in children exhibiting regressive behaviors — backsliding on a developmental skill they’ve learned, usually as a result of emotional distress or frustration.

For example, a very independent child may suddenly become very attached to a parent, a child who usually feeds themselves may suddenly want a parent to feed them, or a previously potty-trained kid will stop using the potty.  These behaviors can be especially distressing for parents whose child is entering or returning to school or daycare, but Allen wants to stress that this type of behavior is normal and temporary. “Regression really means going into a safer version of yourself,” Allen said.

Allen said she has also seen more “big behaviors” such as biting, hitting and tantrums — also a sign of frustration and stress in children — and will discuss how to navigate those behaviors as we transition back to engaging in more social activities.

Normally First 5 hosts multiple in-person playgroups throughout the county, which had to stop due to COVID-19, forcing the organization to get creative with ways to offer support to families. In addition to offering the online parenting groups,  First 5 partnered with North Coast Music Together to offer online music classes for parents and children, has along with the Arcata Playcenter started outdoor hiking groups for parents and infants, and has been doing monthly distributions throughout the county of supplies to help parents, such as diapers, children’s books and activity sets.

First 5 Humboldt Executive Director Mary Ann Hansen says that the items the organization distributes are not only meant to help families who may not have access to resources during the pandemic, but are also designed to help children “self-regulate” their stress with activities such as blowing bubbles.

“Breathing helps manage stress,” Hansen told the Outpost on Wednesday. “A long exhale is associated with sort of regulating your stress system, calming your body down. Blowing bubbles — if you’re two — helps you practice that long exhale and inhale that you need to be able to manage your stress levels.”

“What we can manage when we’re calm and everything is going right is completely different than what we can manage when we’re stressed. We know that as adults, and we can’t expect children to be any different.”

Like Allen, Hansen said that she has seen more regression and “big behaviors” in children recently, due to the changes brought on by the pandemic. Finding ways to mitigate that stress is critical, Hansen said, but it is also important to have realistic expectations of both ourselves and our children and to be patient when things are difficult.

“What we can manage when we’re calm and everything is going right is completely different than what we can manage when we’re stressed,”  Hansen said. “We know that as adults, and we can’t expect children to be any different.”

It is also important for parents to remember that they are not alone, Hansen said. This is another reason First 5 is offering the online parent groups, to help provide “a safe space” for parents to talk about the frustrating moments and the emotional difficulties brought on by taking care of children.

Even though the last year has been difficult for families, Hansen and Allen both feel it is also important to acknowledge the silver linings of COVID.  

“I got to spend eight months with my kids, which was amazing,” Allen said. “There has been a lot of focus on the negative, but we also want to focus on the positive. I’m doing a whole class about appreciating the magic moments of the pandemic.”

The Pandemic Parenting session is March 29, April 5 and April 12. To register and receive the Zoom link, email Katie Allen at katiedallen@gmail.com or text 970-212-6812.

You can find up-to-date information on First 5 Humboldt’s other resources and services on their Facebook page.