Young children’s mental health in pandemics

Can you help?

Life in Australia and all over the world has changed dramatically following the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. People have experienced, fear, anxiety and panic as they have watched news bulletins report the growing death toll from COVID-19.
‘Pre-traumatic stress’ was reported among health workers anticipating the pandemic’s arrival.  With swift public health action, Australia moved quickly to flatten the curve. But the mortality rate from COVID-19 hasn’t been the only, or even the greatest, threat to health and wellbeing generated by this pandemic.

Most people have faced multiple challenges, big and small. A job lost is so much more than lost income: it’s the loss of identity, status, security, history with a business, membership of a team. Cancelled events and regular social outlets, along with isolation from friends and relatives, have left many of us feeling disconnected. Caring for and home-schooling children has been challenging and stressful for many parents. Sadly, some families have lost loved ones and their grief exacerbated because they were not able to attend funerals or be with family. Parents of new babies have not been able to introduce them to family and friends or receive the usual support. Most of us are concerned about long-term effects on the economy, our family’s financial security, our children’s social and emotional well-being and educational needs, and the health of friends and family. 

At the same time, many families have found unexpected benefits. More quality time together, increased gratefulness and appreciation for what they have, less pollution, and a sense of resilience, are some of the positives being mentioned.

Our research with babies and young children who have suffered trauma (such as road accidents, dog bites or burns) shows that children react to stressful events differently. Most children (~60%) are resilient, showing only minimal or transient distress. For around 30% of children, acute elevated distress disrupts their daily activities and interactions with family members for a short time, but they bounce back quickly. 

Around 5-10% of children experience ongoing emotional distress and behavioural changes such as sleep disturbance, nightmares, tantrums, fears and worries. These can continue for months or years after the event. During stressful times, children depend on their caregivers to help them feel safe, contain their distress, help them regulate emotions, and support them to process their experiences. But this is hard work for parents who are themselves facing and juggling multiple ongoing stressors and demands.

We still have much to learn about how disruptive events like pandemics and natural disasters affect the mental health of babies and preschoolers, and how we can support them. Children thrive on structure and routine – feeling that the world is predictable and makes sense. Most of the things we do to cope with stressful events are not possible. So, all the disruption and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has been extra unsettling for many children and families.

To this end, clinicians and researchers from Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health, Children’s Health Queensland, along with several universities (University of Queensland, University of South Queensland, Griffith University and the University of Melbourne) are collaborating to conduct an online research project, COVID-19 Unmasked. The team are also leading the collaboration with international researchers to collect a large global cross-cultural dataset:

Can you help us? We are looking for Australian parents to complete the COVID-19 Unmasked online survey 4 times over the next year (takes approximately 20 minutes to complete). The information from this survey will help us understand how the pandemic is affecting early childhood development. This information will be shared with parents, educators, health professionals, and health-care services, to help provide better support for children’s mental health and well-being now and in the future.

We also have a COVID Unmasked Survey for carers of school aged children. Please help us by participating and/or sharing these links widely:

For caregivers of 1-5 year olds, click here:

For caregivers of 6-17 year olds, click here:

Resources to help now -Our team have developed the Birdie’s Tree resources to help babies and young children and their families to make sense of the challenging times we are experiencing and to support mental health and emotional well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters:

For further information contact the lead researcher: Dr Alexandra De Young at

Alex De Young is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Children's Burns and Trauma Research and School of Psychology, University of Queensland. She is also the Service Evaluation and Research Coordinator at the Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health, Children's Health Queensland.  Her research with the burns and trauma team has focused on understanding, assessing and preventing medical traumatic stress responses in young children and their parents.