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Preschoolers’ mental health and lockdown

Parenting Science Gang have come out of retirement for a special pandemic Q&A about preschoolers’ mental health and lockdown. Dr Pete Lawrence at Southampton University ( is running a study on exactly this, and he kindly came along to talk to our PSG volunteers.


Pete Lawrence: Hi. My current research is examining children’s development in adverse situations. In particular, I’m leading a study examining how pre-schoolers and their families are coping during lockdown.

IE: What specific questions are you asking/areas are you interested in?

MS:  How are you conducting your research, what methods?

HT:  It’s really great that you’ve been able to jump on this weird situation to learn more!

BC:  Will it be a longitudinal study?

Pete Lawrence:  Hi, BC. Yes, a longitudinal study – we started gathering baseline data about 2 weeks ago, and will be following up with survey Qs monthly

BC:  Do you have an idea of how long you’ll be able to follow up with participants?

Pete Lawrence: Hi, IE. In particular, we are using a very widely used measure – the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire to get a sense of the mental health of such young children. Also, we’re examining parents’ mental health, and multiple other social factors that we expect to be associated with pre-schoolers’ mental health

HM:  Pete Lawrence is it too late to take part?

Pete Lawrence to BC:  We have ethics approval to follow up until one month after schools re-open.

Pete Lawrence:  Hi, HM. No, certainly not.

HM:  Great thank you! I was a Psychology graduate a long time ago so this really interests me!

VR:  I filled this in earlier but found it difficult to assess behaviours relating to interacting with others over the last month as she’s been stuck with just me and her dad for playmates ?

Pete Lawrence to VR:  Yes, some parents who’ve already participated have written to us to say the Qs do not apply to them. But, of course, we’ve tried to make sure we give options to capture a many types of experiences as possible (e.g., where parents are key workers, so their pre-schoolers are in some form of childcare and do see other children)

Pete Lawrence to VR:  Also, thank you for participating!

MB:  Pete Lawrence when you say pre school is that age 3-4 years?

Pete Lawrence: Thanks, MB. Yes, 2 years + (in Scotland, some children do not begin school until they are almost 5 1/2 years).

MS:  Pete Lawrence yep, my boy is Feb born so will start at 5.5 in august 2021 in Scotland

CC:  Here in the US my daughter is too young for the cutoff to start in 2020, so she’ll be 5y 9 months when she starts kinder in 2021.

MB:  Thanks 🙂

SC:  When the pandemic appeared on the horizon, were you a bit like, “Woah, well, this is an adverse situation to study children’s development in!?!”

Pete Lawrence: Actually, it didn’t occur to me for some while. I was more focused on my own students’ research projects, and how they would be able to complete these to meet university deadlines.

DP: Both my preschoolers behaviour changes daily so what type of things would you be interested in?

IE: yup!

AM:  Pete Lawrence will your research be looking to make recommendations to the government? And if so, are you taking into account that the Scottish Government has just removed the august deadline for nursery aged children to receive 30 hours funded childcare a week?

MS:  AM:  this worries me. My boy was due to start preschool in august as he goes to school next year. Now unlikely as the preschool requires more staff and building extension which will no longer be done

AM:  I really wish they would be able to at least set a new deadline as it will impact so many families. I live in a rural area with very limited childcare choices and having planned to use the school nursery I am now left without enough childcare. My older 3 all had 15 hours a week and enjoyed that, this one had been going 3 full days since December as I went back to work out of the house.

MS:  And are you hoping to gain information from us about our preschoolers as part of research, or provide us with info sharing your findings so far, or both?

Pete Lawrence: Was hoping to answer your Qs, and ask for your help to share the word about the study. We have not yet had the chance to analyse any data, but do hope to in literally the next few days (now that we have our first 1000 participants)

GE:  Pete Lawrence Would you like us to reach out to our children’s local schools with the survey links? My daughters’ school is communicating with parents through Facebook right now, so could PM the head teacher about it.

SS: Pete Lawrence shall we share the link with our friends/preschools, is there such a thing as too many participants?!

MB:  Hi Pete do you also know of any colleagues who are studying responses in different aged children as well? (I have a just turned 6 yr old, sorry!)

SC:  There’s other researchers in the same research network looking at different aged kids

AC:  Hi Pete I’m really interested in my 4 year olds role play through lockdown. For example most days she decides we’re at nursery and me and her dad are given roles as teachers . We also go on holiday a lot to see her Spanish grandparents…. she’s packed lots of suitcases . It feels like she’s acting out the things she’s missing out on. And it gives her autonomy I suppose .

IE to AC:  my daughter made a board game which centred around us pretending to be her friends and relatives.

Pete Lawrence: Hi, AC. Yes, certainly a possibility. What a clever way for her to have a sense of control in these strange circumstances!

VR:  Alice we get this quite a lot too with my 2.5 great old. I’ve been told I’m everyone from nursery staff to granny/grandad and even her grandparents’ cat…

SP:  Ha, my 5yo keeps roleplaying going on holiday and taking her 2.5yo brother with her!

IE: We were meant to be on holiday the first week of lockdown. My 4 year old daughter has refused to play with her new jigsaws, because she is keeping them for her holiday.

BC:  My 4 year old has asked to do a lot of nursery activities like gathering time, she has “invisible friends” playing in the garden with her named after her nursery friends, she’s packed her suitcase for holiday too

TS:  Our 4yo has suddenly developed a keen interest in 2 of his stuffed toys (Upsy Daisy & Paddington Bear) who now have to join us at most mealtimes.

SA:  Are you looking at lone parents or separated households at all?

Pete Lawrence Hi, SA. We are really keen to gather as diverse a sample as possible. It’s never going to be a truly representative sample, but certainly we want to hear from lone parents, parents in re-constituted families, from parents of children with SEN / health conditions, families from as many diverse backgrounds as we possibly can

MH:  Is your research typically focused on individual/household adversity (abuse, poverty, poor health, children as carers) or wider social adversity like conflict affected settings, or, the current pandemic?

GE:  I’ve just completed the surveys SC linked, with my 6 year old and 3 year old in mind. Which happened to be on the tail end of a rough couple weeks here. Have you found any consistent patterns across families experiencing lockdown so far? Are you planning/able to reach a wider range of families, say through schools, GPs or health visitor services?

FS:  Hi, I completed the school age questionnaire about a month ago and the preschooler one just now. My answers for worry seemed to be a lot more worried. I wondered if you have found that parents have become more worried about certain things as this has continued. Personally, my 6 year old is coping fine and I’m not that worried but I’m very worried about my 4 year old especially as he may miss the end of nursery and end up going straight to school!

JH to FS:  I am so concerned about this too.

JH to FS:  I’m worried about the lack of proper endings/beginnings at such a crucial time in their education.

LC:  Yes I am worried about this too, for my daughter

Pete Lawrence: Hi, FS. Well, this is exactly why we want to track pre-schoolers over time. (and school-aged children in the co-space study). I think that schools will be able to play an extremely helpful role when they re-open – whether before summer term ends, or once autumn term begins.

Pete Lawrence: I would expect normalising how they might feel sad about missing out on markers of transition (whether settling in days in reception class, or a goodbye party from nursery) could be very helpful

DP:  Also lot of their behaviours depend on how I’m coping most days!

IE: yup!

LC:  Yes I agree with this!

Pete Lawrence: Yes, as both a parent and a researcher, I agree that a parent’s own coping can have an impact on how a child copes

MH:  What might support look like and how likely is it that this research will impact on policy and funding for mental health support (given the chronic underfunding of mh services, particularly in NI where I am)?

Pete Lawrence: Hi, MH. Good questions. We really don’t yet know what support will look like. Two important things to say: 1. that’s exactly why these studies are required – we do not know what will help children and families’ mental health in these circumstances. 2. We have already been liaising with public health bodies throughout the UK, as well as local authorities etc., because they want us to tell them what families are telling us that appears to be associated with children coping better, so that they can base their responses on that evidence.

SG:  Hi there, are you looking into family dynamics or looking at child’s coping process/ experience in isolation?

Pete Lawrence: Thanks, SG. Not really dynamics, per se. It’s an online survey, so we have focused our questions on simple self-report items. We do, though, ask about how much parents feel they are able to spend as much time as they would like with their child / run, and in meeting other demands. So, we do get a little information on that.

AP:  How are you allowing for parents projecting their own feeling about lockdown in describing their children’s emotions / well being?

Pete Lawrence:  Great Q, AP. Strictly, we cannot – we will have only the parent’s report of their own and their child’s coping. Rather, we might be able to control for parents’ reports of their own wellbeing and mental health in our analyses.

AP:  Pete Lawrence are you questioning the parents as well then?

ML:  I’m wondering about how this is likely to affect children’s social development at such an impressionable age. We spend so much time encouraging them to go play with others, to go say ‘hello’ to join in, etc., and now suddenly we’re home nearly all the time and trying to tell them not to be so friendly to strangers we see on walks, not to run off and play…

FS:  definitely. I am concerned about this

Pete Lawrence: Thanks, ML. That’s quite right to wonder. We do, of course, encourage young children to interact with others (friends or those they do not yet know) in the hope that this helps their socio-emotional development.

Pete Lawrence:  Without wanting to step into ‘advice mode’, I think it’s fair to say that, while out my house, I’ve seen some great parenting where parents have reminded their children of the importance of the 2m safety rule, while encouraging them to speak with people on a walk. I was really pleased to see people trying to work out ways to encourage pro-social behaviours within the bounds of the 2m rule

ML:  Pete Lawrence Is long term social development something your research, or research you are aware of is tracking at all?

Pete Lawrence to ML:  We will be tracking pre-schooler’s mental health (via the SDQ I think I mentioned earlier) over time, but not really their socio-emotional development

Pete Lawrence:  It’s certainly possible that other studies are examining this, but I’ve not yet heard of one.

MS:  Pete Lawrence my 4yo has decided in the last week that the virus isn’t real and he just goes up to people now. It’s become so hard to maintain social distancing. His own denial phase suddenly 🙁

MB:  my 6 yr old has decided he doesn’t want to leave the house and doesn’t want to wash his hands for the stupid virus because he doesn’t care 🙁

Pete Lawrence to MB:  Sorry to hear this.

Pete Lawrence: Seems fair enough to be angry at the virus for mucking up their life at the moment. Hopefully, they might show the virus that they won’t allow it to take away all the fun things they might usually enjoy about being outdoors!

MB to  Pete Lawrence: thanks. Quite possibly ND so all that ‘fun’ too

ML:  Presumably, at least, if social distancing does prove to affect children’s social development in the long run, the effect will be so widespread that it may be reflected as a change in social norms rather than the detrimental social effect it might have if it were only isolated cases.

SC:  Although children will be having very different experiences from each other.

SS:  So many good points!

FS:  Have you considered sleep patterns and diet changes? For example my kid will eat everything at nursery but at home he is very picky…

Pete Lawrence:  We’re just updating our Qs to add in a Q about sleep. So, we missed asking the Q at baseline for the first 1000 parents, but hope to have many of them back at 1month follow-up and beyond.

DP:  Yup my nearly 3yo has regressed to having 1.5-2hour illegal (late in the day!) naps

Pete Lawrence to DP: ?

Pete Lawrence: (I hope that emoji means what I think!)

Pete Lawrence: I like the idea of an ‘illegal’ nap

MB to DP: ah the danger nap…

Pete Lawrence: Yes, it’s certainly simple for rogue naps to occur when routines can be so difficult to maintain.

MB:  And presumably if there’s little access to outside that could also affect bedtimes? Plus more screen time

KP:  I was hoping that Bedtimes would be easier as Sarah Ockwell Smith often describes children in childcare settings having elevated cortisol but they are no easier!

MB:  I tend to find being bloody knackered takes over the cortisol when they are kept busy all the time in childcare settings ?

SC:  Maybe this is outside of your scope to answer, but what age group would you expect to find lockdown hardest? e.g. babies presumably mostly don’t care, because they just want to snuggle with their primary caregiver. But teenagers are far more peer focused. So are teenagers likely to be most affected?

What in particular would you expect preschoolers to experience from lockdown?

AM:  I like this question! Here it is hardest on my 9 year old as the teens( 13 and 15) are more used to online communication with friends already. The preschooler comes second as whilst she misses things she also thrives on lots of attention from her siblings and parents.

BM:  I’ve just completed the surveys my daughter has sensory/social issues and since we were put on 12 weeks of shielding we haven’t left the house just wondering will this affect her social development on a long term basis and what support may there be when coming out of lockdown to help children with these issues?

Pete Lawrence: Hi, BM. Wearing my clinician’s hat for a moment, I’d want to reassure you that we wouldn’t be thinking about long term effects on social development. Rather, we might want to check how we are best able to support children cope with the challenges of lockdown, and then with the challenges of transition our of lockdown.

BM:  Pete Lawrence thank you and support coming out of it I think will definitely be beneficial

SS: Pete Lawrence yes my eldest is autistic so I’ve also wondered about the impact on his social skills as they needed support even before all this.

GE:  Do you plan to dig deeper into parental caring vs working roles and responsibilities? If I could add some detail about that, it would probably help explain some of how we’re coping.

For background: my husband is the children’s primary carer while I hide in my bedroom during the day attempting to work full time and meet deadlines (which is not happening, not even close). This is a very new role for him, he’s not used to juggling two small kids and a teenager, and he is not the type to seek out advice when it comes to the children’s behaviour and educational needs. That effort has **always** come from me.

The more I try to communicate any info to him that might be relevant, the more he switches off. If any support can be designed to reach him (and he can’t possibly be the only off-contract / furloughed parent suddenly finding their feet with their kids), then you could probably reach a lot of families! If you manage to put together something like a TV show (or maybe a social media vid??), get a bloke in there!

SC:  Like a video presented by some really masculine bloke, going, “Oi, mate, listen to your missus, she knows her stuff about parenting!”

SC:  Maybe Jason Momoa. Or Geoff Capes?

AM:  dwayne Johnson – watch his video of him singing your welcome to his daughter who has no idea he is the character

GE to SC:  A few other dads chatting honestly about preschoolers, about home-educating older kids, about what it’s like trying to balance household responsibilities, about what is the highest priority — e.g. is it laundry, is it Google Classroom, is it spelling practice, is it messy play with the little one rather than another 4 hours of Disney Plus? ?

MB to GE:  yes – focus on parents widely would be good

JH to GE:  we need a club.

AM:  I have worked from home with children around ( home edding and before they went to school) for many years and I admit to feeling quite gleeful when DP complained that it is hard to work with children around. I have been furloughed so the bulk of it falls to me but he does still have to do his bit.

Pete Lawrence to SC:  I definitely know who Geoff Capes is, but not sure about Jaon Momoa – is he the guy who played aqua man in one of those hero films?

Pete Lawrence: Thanks, Gen. This is a great idea. We have just been awarded some funding for the project (been running on a shoestring until today), so we hope to be able to be much more active and aeefective in recruiting harder to reach participants (such as you describe) in the coming months r so.

SC:  Pete Lawrence Yes, that’s him. Jason Momoa.

SC to JH:  “we need a club”, Like a parenting science club?

Or like a “My OH is a defensive idiot” club?

GE to SC:  Both? Is there science behind being a defensive idiot? :-p

JH to SC:  defensive idiot!! ??‍♀‍?

SC to JH:  It took me a minute to think of a relatively inoffensive term:-)

JH to SC:  pahaaaaaa?

SS to GE:  should I be concerned that I don’t know what Google Classroom is? Should I know about it?!

GE to SS: Only if your child’s school is using it! It’s a platform to send schoolwork to students online, that’s all xx

SS to GE:  ah, thanks!

RW: I’m really interested in the risks Vs benefits of preschool/reception age children being at school with handwashing, PPE or social distancing in place. I’m worried it would cause anxiety re germs and cause damage to normal development of social skills if children are deterred from playing with each other etc. Do you know if there is any research or thinking about the possible harm if schools go down this route?

Pete Lawrence:  Interesting Q, RW, and I can see your rationale. I am unaware of any such research to support it. I think, though, that with clear explanation to young children – so they can understand it – why distancing is necessary, then anxiety about germs etc. might not emerge

RW: Pete Lawrence my little girl came home from preschool before lockdown saying that germs are hurting her hands. I’m not so sure that young kids can be made to understand fully. There has to be a clear distinction between covid-19 and general illness and germs, otherwise kids are going to become health anxious about every cough and sneeze. Plus, if there is a kid in the classroom with covid then would handwashing at intervals of the day really prevent its spread? I doubt it. And the only way to stop kids of that age from playing with each other is through behaviour modification …do we really want to condition 4yr olds to not interact in a natural way with their peers? How would we undo that damage once the threat of the virus is reduced?

VR to RW: for a while my 2.5 year old was absolutely certain that we all had to stay at home and not see everyone because she was going to give them her cold. We tried to explain that this wasn’t the case and talk very openly with her about it. I think she does get it, but I wonder how many parents would just agree with statements like that from little ones because it’s easier than trying to explain this situation to them.

RW to VR:  I think one of the challenges with young children is we can think we’ve explained something well and that they understand, but they don’t have the skills to explain to us if they haven’t received the information as we think they have. They make sense of their own world without us really knowing. I’ll be honest, I’ve not even told my daughter anything yet, just that it’s school holidays and most places are closed to get them ready for the summer. Everyone I’ve admitted that to has criticised me, but the fact is I didn’t feel like it was fair to try to explain covid-19 and lockdown to her until I fully understand what it all means myself. Once I know what “the new normal” is then I’ll 100% tell her and start preparing her so that she can understand why things are as they are. But right now she is happy and oblivious and perfectly accepting of her long school holidays. As soon as she starts asking why she’s not seeing friends/family etc then I’ll be honest with her but at the moment she’s just enjoying being with me all the time.

SS to Pete Lawrence yes I am concerned about how easy it will be for children to ‘unlearn’ the social distancing rules/behaviours etc

IE: Feedback on survey: question on isolation status only mentions social distancing in one of the options.

It is social distancing (not self isolation) that has been ordered by the government for most people. You should probably update your wording.

VR to IE: I’m pretty sure I answered with options that used both terms as the rest of the contents seemed applicable.

IE to VR:  I did the same, but who knows how others will interpret, which affects the validity of the result unfortunately.

VR:  Iona, I know, I dithered for a long time over how best to answer it but there didn’t seem to be a better option ?

MS:  I’m on that question now and don’t fit any of the categories by following government lockdown rules but not isolating as go out for walks and to grocery shop once a week (which is more than cutting down on usual activities but not quite the work option below that and less than isolating cos of government order)

Pete Lawrence: Ah! Thank you. Will have a look at that for the follow-ups.

Pete Lawrence: Thank you, IE.

SA:  My son has been breastfeeding a lot. I think that we were ill with it early on and he reverted to feeding like a newborn…(hes 2 years 4 months)

VR to SA:  my daughter wants the boob all the time too (she’s coming up on 2 and a half later this month). Before this we’d been down to mostly first thing in the morning and before bedtime. It’s been quite an adjustment!

AM:  My daughter is too! I was about to wind down towards weaning as it is getting uncomfortable for me but I really do not want to take it away from her atm as a source of comfort ( and also the antibodies) I do not think we have had it.

MB:  If the milky bar is more available…! I remember sitting down being an ‘invitation’ for toddlers

IE: My daughter has just turned 4.

Hasn’t asked for boob since 3.5, but has asked several times since lockdown (unfortunately there is nothing there any more and she is really disappointed). She gives them a good squeeze to check!! ?

AM:  to MB:  even compared to her days at home with me pre lockdown she is feeding a lot more

MB:  I wonder if they pick up on some vibes? X

MB:  to IE I briefly considered relactating

AM:  I think it is a checking that a constant is there as we have removed so many things that they had taken as a fixed part of their lives away from them

SK:  My little guy is 3 years 3 months, he was down to just nursing at night. This is the one area which I have found has brought about a massive change in him. He would nurse like a newborn, I keep having to try and deflect. I’d rather hoped he’d have weaned by now, but he did come down with something viral, I think it got us through it more easily.

He’s so much more vocal on how he loved and needs booby now as well ?‍♀‍

VR:  SK:  I find the discussion about it and how my daughter asks for breastmilk really entertaining. “I just have a little bit now and then save some for bedtime…” ?

SK:  Yes! ‘Just a little bit of booby and some tv!’, he’s such a wee bloke ??


MS:  Yep, any ideas of weaning my 4yo are out the window now at home more as he only had it at home the last year! Now it’s my time I sit in usual spot, or he’s bored or tired, or he sees my boobs

RW: I’m finding in general that adults and children appear to be suspicious and wary of each other at the moment. My 3.5yr old tries to talk to other children on our daily walks and those children (a bit older than her) look confused and scared to talk to her. The tension when going to the supermarket is palpable. I’m a keyworker and have noticed when driving during the day that there’s a lot of tailgating and general aggressive vibe between people. Is it likely that long term social distancing will alter our social interactions permanently? Will we have a whole generation with different social skills? Is this likely to affect mental health, emotional intelligence, attachment styles in adulthood etc?

MB to RW: mm lots more aggression at work. People being more snappy

AM:  We had the opposite problem when we spotted one of her friends on our walk and they both started running towards each other. We live in the middle of the village and she loves to sit at the window and wave at people coming past ( we are a first floor flat so I am expecting someone to get worried at some point!)

GE:  Oh God, yes. My teen, especially, is not herself. She is so anxious about people standing too close. Not at all like her.

RW to AM:  my little girl has started trying to talk to anyone and everyone she can, she’s clearly craving social contact. She was pretty shy before lockdown.

SS to RW: yes & if this generation of children experience this as the norm for an extended period of time then how long will it take them to unlearn it, especially if their parents also find it hard to unlearn & model the old norm?

FS:  Have you considered screen time and the effects of different combinations of parents working from home? (All working/some working/none working)

Pete Lawrence: Hi, FS. Screen time – hah! I’d guide yo to excellent work by Dr Amy Orben on that. BUT…yes, we have asked a few Qs, trying to see what pre-schoolers are doing (e.g., passively watching / actively playing games) with screens

MB:  Pete Lawrence it’s the blue light and bedtime that I wonder about. Mind you, it’s on many many hours right now with both parents having to work

AC:  I feel that this has been a positive experience for my 4 year old but am really aware that we are lucky . I’m a stay at home mum anyway but a qualified early years teacher so I’m used to being at home lots and have realistic expectations of her behaviour etc. Having my husband home on furlough is great as my 9 month is in sleep regression so I can nap . If he wasn’t here I would not be able to spend 121 time with her . We miss nursery as it gives me a break and her a change of scene etc . We still have challenges of course and we are reflecting a lot plus finding she needs a lot more attention than usual. But generally I think it’s good for her attachment relationships to both of us . I feel that we have really had to step up and notice what she needs cause we can’t just rely on having a day off when it’s nursery day . It’s intense and I couldn’t sustain it though.

SC:  One last question – I know your research is still ongoing, but from your knowledge previously, do you have any tips on what we can best do to support our children through all this? What helps young kids come out of a prolonged stressful experience, psychologically intact?

RW to SC:  great question!

JH to SC:  yes amen to that question!

Pete Lawrence: Thanks, SC. It’s been a pleasure. Well, I think what is very important is for us all, as parents, to remember that little and often is going to be helpful – so routine, if possible and opportunities for fun and play throughout lockdown are likely to help children emerge from the lockdown as well as can be. I’d guide you to the website, and to see their resources tab. We’re about to add something there for parents of pre-schoolers (there’s already something there for parents of school-aged children).

MB:  Pete Lawrence thank you for chatting with us, and for the link

Followed by many, many thanks to Pete from participants….

Thanks so much for joining us Pete, and answering all our questions.

Remember, if you are in the UK, have a preschooler and want to take part in the study, it’s here

If you have older children, there are other studies here

If you want help and suggestions to support your children at the moment,

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