Childhood developmental delays increasing because of pandemic, experts say

Posted at 6:25 AM, May 25, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — Mental health experts and people who work with children say they’re seeing an increase in developmental delays and mental health issues in children because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve seen a little bit of delays in some children and that’s totally understandable,” said Caroline Sakla, Owner of Little Explorers.

“We have seen a lot of children under the age of four and five who have such bad social anxiety and separation anxiety from their families because they’ve never been exposed, or they haven’t been exposed in the last year,” said Synthia Fairman, Co-Owner of Doublemint Sitting and Camp Doublemint.

Experts say they’re seeing delays with motor function, speech, play, and social skills, and it may be even more difficult for children who were already having issues with these things.

"Parents had to pivot but also children who were already challenged with language motor skills, social skills, they had to quickly adjust to a normal that totally turned their worlds upside down,” said Natasha A. Pierre, Executive Director of NAMI Hillsborough.

Experts say these delays are happening because many children haven’t been separated from their parents or caregivers for the past year and likely haven't interacted with many people outside of their household.

“We’re talking about safe spaces and places where children feel safe. Over the last year we’ve been able to create safe spaces in our homes and now we’ve got to get back out into the real world and that’s a challenge,” said Pierre.

“For many kids who maybe haven’t been separated from their parents or caregivers, we are seeing an increase in that social anxiety. Worries about interacting with others, worries about interacting in public settings and then again that separation,” said Jennifer Katzenstein, PhD, Pediatric Neuropsychologist and Co-Director of The Center of Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Katzenstein wants to encourage parents to ease back into things.

“In terms of social development for our younger kids, you know getting them back out, working on sharing, working on those social cues because we want to make sure that those skills kind of come back online pretty quickly when they’ve been out of practice for so long,” said Katzenstein.

When it comes to separation anxiety, experts say you should make sure your child has an understanding of where they will be, who they will be with, and give them good coping strategies.

“So if you start to feel anxious taking some deep breaths, making sure they have a trusted friend or another adult at that location so they know who to go to if they’re getting worried, and then always that backup plan of calling mom and dad and at least being able to talk to them on the phone,” said Dr. Katzenstein.

It’s not only developmental delays in younger children doctors are worried about, they’re seeing issues in teens too.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in anxiety and depression as well, with about 40% of adolescents and teens experiencing some level of anxiety or depression at this point in the pandemic,” said Katzenstein.

Experts say they don’t know yet if these delays will have long-term impacts on children.

“The better we can do now with prevention and preparation, the more that we can do to prevent any type of long-term impacts. So we have seen the anxiety and depression increase, and we want to make sure that we are recognizing that early and taking it seriously and getting our kids the help that they need,” said Katzenstein.

“It’s important that parents understand what their child needs are, and create the strategy and the structure to best support them," said Pierre.