While the past two years have been tough on everyone, they’ve been especially hard for children living with challenging family circumstances or in communities hit hardest by health and economic difficulties. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association recently declared children’s mental health a national emergency due to the serious toll COVID-19 has taken on families. According to the CDC, between March and October 2020, the percentage of emergency department visits for children with mental health emergencies grew by 24% for children ages 5-11. The pandemic also caused a decline in children receiving primary care and behavioral health services, which can negatively impact their well-being.
What can adults do to help children cope?
Supporting children facing unprecedented changes and challenges is key to helping them develop emotional skills – like resilience – that will last a lifetime, according to Dr. Arethusa Stevens Kirk, national senior medical director at UnitedHealthcare.
Children and adolescents have faced unprecedented stressors in their environments: quarantines, illness in families and other disruptions. The pandemic has affected the stability and structure of families, with over 140,000 U.S. children experiencing the death of a parent or grandparent from COVID-19, according to the AAP. According to AAP research, children of racial and ethnic minority families are at 4.5 times greater risk of losing a caregiver.
“I grew up in and out of foster care starting at age 4, so I understand how important it is to help children remain resilient in the face of challenging environments. Knowing how to talk with children and demonstrate compassion helps reduce stress in their lives,” said Kirk. “As a pediatrician, I see how vital it is that we teach them skills like resilience, flexibility, confidence and persistence.”
Resources to support children’s mental health and development
To help children develop critical life skills, Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind the children’s program “Sesame Street” has introduced new resources to help children build resilience. Made possible by UnitedHealthcare, the new content includes three online storybooks and an online course for providers. The content helps teach confidence and how to encourage practicing persistence and dealing with change – all key ingredients to resilience.
For providers: The “Roads to Resilience” online course is designed to help providers including healthcare workers, educators, and housing and social service providers use the new resources, along with tools and new ideas to foster professional development.
For children: Three storybooks feature the “Sesame Street” Muppets Karli, Lily and Alex.
* “The Monster Dash: A Story about Resilience and Flexibility” explores dealing with change. Because of her mom’s struggle with addiction, Karli has spent time in foster care, living with a lack of predictability and control. But caring adults have given her tools to build resilience. Being flexible and pivoting when circumstances change is a big part of resilience.
* “Looking for Special: A Story about Resilience and Confidence” teaches children about confidence. Lily and her family haven’t always had enough food, and for a while they didn’t have a home of their own – but they’ve endured hard times and are stronger for it.
* “Bounce Back: A Story about Resilience and Persistence” shows Alex practicing persistence. When Alex’s father was incarcerated, Alex and his family faced big challenges, and he had to cope with hard feelings like fear and anger. Persistence is another part of resilience and, like everyone, Alex needs to find ways to manage his frustration and practice patience.
“Resources and skills like these help children cope with difficulties. Anyone involved in a child’s care holds power, and they can use that power to help children feel safe, seen – and hopeful,” added Kirk. “By working together, we can improve children’s overall health and well-being.”
For over 10 years, UnitedHealthcare and Sesame Workshop have worked together to improve the well-being of children and families – especially those most vulnerable – by providing tools to build a strong foundation for lifelong healthy habits. This partnership includes the “Growing Every Day, Every Way” program, which provides families and caregivers with resources to address topics including food insecurity, physical activity, developmental milestones and healthy habits, to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger and kinder.
These resources are available in English and Spanish for parents and providers to access and download at SesameStreetInCommunities.org.