SIGN UP: Dr Alex De Young is encouraging regional families to participate in a survey that will help researchers better understand how young children and parents are coping with the pandemic.
SIGN UP: Dr Alex De Young is encouraging regional families to participate in a survey that will help researchers better understand how young children and parents are coping with the pandemic.

Support for parents and children struggling with mental health

RESEARCHERS are looking for families from regional communities to participate in a survey about how children may be responding to COVID-19.

Queensland Centre For Perinatal and Infant Mental Health service, evaluation and research co-ordinator Alex De Young said whether it be homeschooling, not seeing friends or missing important activities and events, young children were likely facing challenges as a result of the pandemic.

Parents and children aged one to 17-years-old are needed to participate in the COVID-19 Unmasked survey, led by University of Southern Queensland Professor Sonja March and investigator Dr De Young.

"One of the reasons that we still don't know a lot about this age group is because it is assumed that babies and preschoolers are too young to have mental health problems and be affected by stressful events, but we know this isn't the case," Ms Dr De Young said.

"During stressful times, children depend on their caregivers to help them feel safe, contain their distress, help them regulate emotions, and support them to understand and process their experiences, but this is often hard work for parents who are often also feeling anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed by the event and also needing to juggle multiple ongoing stressors and demands."

Dr De Young said even babies and toddlers, are affected by changes in their routines or how their parents are responding to them.

She said children are very perceptive of changes in parent's mood and behaviours, such as panic buying of toilet paper.

After high school Dr De Young moved from Rockhampton to Brisbane where she completed in-depth studies including a Bachelor of Psychological science, honours and a PHD in Clinical Psychology.

Over the years, she has assisted with international research projects and conducted extensive research covering areas including trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety, behavioural disorders in children, responses to natural disasters, as well as the psychological impact caused by exposure to significant injuries, such as burns.

She has also developed training packages to assist teachers with supporting children following natural disasters including the Queensland floods in 2011 and 2013, the Christchurch Earthquakes and Japan tsunami, as well as various cyclones and bushfires in Australia.

"From the research we've done with young children who have experienced medical trauma or natural disasters, we know that most children are resilient and cope well with disruptive events, especially if they have good family and community support," Dr De Young said.

"We also know, that when there's a stressful event, babies and young children pick up on the anxiety of adults around them, as they are very perceptive.

"Children thrive on structure, routine and feeling that the world is predictable and makes sense, so all the disruption and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has been unsettling for many children and families."

While everyone is different and will experience stressful events differently, Dr De Young said some children may respond by becoming more anxious, fearful, clingy, fussy, withdrawn, less playful, aggressive or have behavioural outbursts.

Some children may also experience trouble getting to sleep, regular nightmares, being unable to settle or calm down, more tantrums or regressing in learnt skills like using the toilet and sleeping through the night.

Dr De Young said these difficulties will resolve quickly when routines return to normal but for a small number of children, problems may persist long-term, which is why this research was crucial in identifying what children are experiencing and what actions need to be taken to get them back on track.

"Young children respond to and process emotional experiences and traumatic events in ways that are very different from adults and older children, so diagnosis of mental health problems in early childhood can be much more difficult than it is for older age groups and this is why problems are often missed until children start school," Dr De Young said.

"We know these things are becoming a problem when they are doing them more often or intensely than you would expect for their age, start to interfere with the child's relationships, daily activities and development."

Passionate about raising awareness about children experiencing mental health, Dr De Young said research was paramount for early intervention.

"Early childhood is the time that children are still developing and learning the skills to name, manage and regulate their emotions, which is why they are particularly reliant on their parents to help them manage big feelings," she said.

"Often their distress shows as clinginess, whinging, problem behaviours or sleeping issues, (but) these are often the most frustrating things parents need to deal with children and often the underlying worry/anxiety can be easily missed.

"During early childhood, brains are undergoing a rapid rate of development and we know that early life experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behaviour and health, which is why prevention and timely intervention for children who are exposed to traumatic events at a young age are available."

Dr De Young said children who have caregivers who are warm, responsive, consistent, predictable and supportive are usually buffered from the negative effects of stressful events such as pandemics and disasters.

Results from the survey will be used to better understand how young children and parents are coping with the pandemic and changes and offer useful resources to best support children now and into the future.

Information will be shared with parents, educators, health professionals and healthcare services.

The initial survey takes approximately 20 minutes to complete, will be available for the next six weeks and participants will be invited to complete further surveys three, six and 12 months later so children and their behaviours can be monitored over the next 12 months.

"We are particularly wanting to hear the voice of families who are living in regional, rural and remote communities and families from different cultural backgrounds as they often don't get to share their experiences in research," Ms De Young said.

"This will help us to ensure that our recommendations from these findings are relevant for a wide variety of people from different cultures, backgrounds and communities and it will also help us learn about what types of mental health services and support would be needed for families living in regional communities like Bundaberg."

Parents of children aged one to five can visit is.gd/covid19_unmasked and parents of children ages six to 17 can visit rebrand.ly/covid19unmasked6up.