It’s been an unsettling couple of weeks for all of us as we navigate the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and we hope you and your family are staying healthy and united. We are all learning to adjust to a new way of life in our ‘bubble’ under lockdown, unable to see friends and relatives. Spiralling coverage of COVID-19 has been compounded by school closures, event cancellations and images of toilet-paper battles in our supermarkets. With so much new information coming to light each hour and so many questions left unanswered, families are feeling on edge — and with good reason.
It is completely understandable that many children will have strong emotional responses and changes in behaviour in the face of such uncertainty. You may notice signs of extra stress in your child, like problems with sleep, separation anxiety, repetitive behaviours (such as excessive hand-washing) or the need for excessive reassurance. More tears or anger than usual may also show that your child is worried.
Dr Hiran Thanbrew is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and paediatrician at Starship Children's Hospital. He talks about 5 ways to support your child's mental health through COVID-19.
Make sure you check-in with your child or teen regularly. Start by asking what your child knows about the situation. Listen more than you talk and try to validate their feelings. Let them know that it is common to feel this way and that others are also having similar feelings. Reassure your child that they are loved, cared for and safe. They will spot false reassurance but it is reasonable to put what is happening into context in a reassuring way. It may be helpful to remind your child that some people only experience mild symptoms and reassure them that more people are recovering from the virus than dying from it. You could tell them that it is unlikely they will get very ill, and if they do you will look after them, and if you get the virus you will be probably only be ill for a few days.
Seeing images of people wearing masks in hospital wards and hearing coronavirus news reports all day long can increase distress in anyone, but especially in those predisposed to anxiety already. It’s a good idea to decrease your viewing time in common family areas of your home. If necessary, read news reports discretely on your phone away from your children. Be mindful of little ears playing nearby that overhear news reports you’re watching or hearing.
Fueling many people’s anxiety is the spread of misinformation on social media and through videos on YouTube. Whilst it is difficult in the digital age to restrict access to social media, try to discourage them from buying into social media posts, rumours or sensationalist media outlets. Limiting information seeking to a few credible sources can help parents and children to stay informed without feeling overwhelmed. Help them to understand that there are experts working on things as we speak and let them learn how to seek this knowledge in a scientific and thoughtful way.
Be honest and give simple answers to their questions. You can correct misinformation, but avoid telling them not to worry. Anxiety makes us overestimate risk and underestimate our ability to cope. The goal is to help your child realistically evaluate risks based on available information. You might say, “We can do things to try to stay healthy, like washing our hands regularly and avoiding touching our faces,” “It’s true that some people have died from this, and most people who get this illness are OK,” or “Doctors and scientists are working hard to learn how to stop it from spreading.”
It is important that you are aware of your own levels of anxiety as well as your own emotional needs so that you are able to look after your child. This can be difficult because your focus is often on the more vulnerable around you. You need to be in the best position possible so you can look after your child. In the same way that air cabin crews tell you to put on your own life jacket first before helping your family – it is about strengthening yourself so you can be strong for your child. Try to eat, sleep and exercise as well as you possibly can and ask for help from trusted friends and family when you need help.
Watch Dr Hiran Thanbrew (child and adolescent psychiatrist and paediatrician) go through 10 tips for managing your own mental health during COVID-19.
Where possible wake at the same time each day; carve out blocks of time for school work, exercise, and entertainment; eat regular meals together, and remember that regularity is calming and reassuring. In young children, anxiety often manifests as behaviour that is extra clingy, weepy, or irritable. Keeping diet and sleep routines as normal as possible will give children a sense of security. Extra hugs (and bedtime stories) for younger children along with some additional one-on-one attention will go a long way toward making an anxious child feel better.
When kids understand the higher purpose of things, they can often 'make meaning' which allows them to feel some control over their conditions. For example, if we say, ‘We have to stay home now so that we don’t pass on the virus to others. We are going to be OK. Children are not at risk, but if we stay home we can make sure that grandma and grandpa stay healthy too…’ it helps them understand the importance of their actions.
Keeping yourself and your ‘bubble’ entertained within four walls can be a daunting task. Especially when you can’t just nip out to the shops for crafting supplies, hardware or toys. Break out board games, build a house of cards, bake cakes or cookies, or go for a family walk/bike ride. Show your children that there’s an upside to all the cancellations. Make sure there are family-based activities - not having plans for the day can increase worry and anxiety. Family-based activities will make children and teens feel like they are part of a unit and provide a sense of connectedness or togetherness. Try to find some humour in these things that seem so out of the ordinary.
For children with an existing anxiety disorder or mental health condition, school closures and health threats can lead to heightened distress and worry.
Some children will need to have support from professionals. Unfortunately, it's impossible to predict those small numbers of young people who will have significant ongoing emotional difficulties. If your child's responses are severe or ongoing, your child may need extra help to cope.
If you are concerned, contact your family doctor who will be able to give you advice about what support is recommended and available.
Watch Dr Hiran Thanbrew (child and adolescent psychiatrist and paediatrician) talk about what you can do if your child is already worried about COVID-19.
From all reports it’s a long road ahead, but like any other crisis before it, this too shall pass. We are all in this together, and it is important to take comfort in knowing there are wonderful people in our communities there for you to share the burden of this strange time.
People have been working to provide a range of resources to help explain coronavirus (COVID-19) to children - from videos for kids about the science behind coronavirus to online stories that can be important conversation starters in your household.
An excellent resource from University of Oxford Child & Adolescent Psychiatry team for those faced with the daunting task of breaking the news of a relatives death to a child.
For COVID-19 health advice in New Zealand, call 0800 358 5453. Make sure to only call for health-related information on COVID-19.
For support with grief, anxiety, distress or mental wellbeing, you can call or text 1737 - free, anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - to talk with a trained counsellor.
See answers to frequently asked questions about looking after mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19. This includes the following sections: