By now, most children will be aware of coronavirus. Some will have a deeper understanding than others based on their age - school children will know more thanks to their teachers explaining it to them prior to the school closures - but the under-fives may still be unclear about what the outbreak means and why they're unable to see their friends or relatives, or do activities they normally would.
How much should we be telling children about COVID-19 and how do we manage their disappointment at plans being cancelled? What language should we use and how we ensure that their mental health is as good as it can be?
Here, we speak to a primary school teacher, who has spent the last few weeks answering children's questions about the virus, and a mental health social worker, who works with young people and children, providing emotional wellbeing and mental health advice.
The most important thing is using age-appropriate honesty,” says children's mental health social worker Aretha Davis. “Think about how much they understand and then relaying it in a way of what they can do to keep everyone safe. This will be obviously different from pre-schooler to teenager. Think about visual story-telling with little ones to those up until secondary school age - there are good resources out there that following this format, Young Minds and Mind Heart, for example.”
“Firstly, children will respect you for being honest,” says James Braid, a teacher at Chelsfield Primary School. “Secondly, if they discover new or contrary information through other sources at a later date (and they usually will), this could lead children to panic and for their trust in you to falter. Thirdly, information coming from you, someone they trust, can be delivered in a more reassuring way. COVID-19 could be referred to as a virus, flu or bad cold: whichever your child will understand and can relate to.”
Manage your own anxiety as much as possible
“What’s hard is that the outbreak also triggers adult natural defences, so it’s hard to have the emotional resources to offer containment and reassurance to kids,” says Davis. “Similarly to when other disasters happen, the message is around putting your own oxygen mask on first - that’s key. We don’t know how this will go on for, so we need to think about how will parents look after themselves? Who is it in their own lives who will offer support to and attend to their emotional needs, so that they can do the same for their children. Parents will have their own fight and flight reaction, so don’t beat yourself up over that. Practice the things that make you feel better. The kids will be alright if the parents are ok.”
Don’t deny that something strange is happening
“Children are naturally very in tune with their emotional world, it’s only as we grow older that this changes. They will pick up on anxiety. It’s important to recognise and validate that it is a strange time,” says Davis.
Stick to their routine
“Most parents are great at making sure their kids have a routine anyway, such as set mealtimes and bedtimes,” says Davis. “Perhaps, as a family, between Monday to Friday you draw up a routine poster. Children will have time to do things they don’t usually have time to do, like tending to gardens, baking or reading - things that are good for children’s routine. Mood is intrinsically linked with self-care, the best way to improve a mood is to do pleasant things that give a dopamine hit.”
Make sure they still socialise digitally
“We are very social creatures, and look to interact with our friends or family when we are trying to ease anxiety,” says Braid. “The same rule applies for children. Ensure that they are able to socialise with friends and family for appropriate amounts of time via phone, email, FaceTime, etc. When they are not doing this, they will need to get their interaction fix from within the household. The more time you spend socialising with them, the more safe and happy they will feel.”
Reassure them that they will see their friends again
“The most common question I have come across is, ‘When will I be able to see my friends again?’ says Braid. “I reassure them by saying that it’s important to follow government guidance for now to help keep everyone safe, but school will be open again. I have been honest and said this could be for many weeks, but to think of all the fun activities they can do at home in the meantime.”
Don’t be dismissive of your child’s disappointment of things being cancelled
“First of all, make sure you validate that disappointment - no one likes it when their feelings are swept under the rug - then think about the exciting part when you might get to do things again that you take real joy in,” says Davis. “Think about looking ahead - what will happen when this is over? It’s about making loose plans because this will end at some point.”
If they are feeling disappointed, then distract them with activities
“Children generally live fully in the present, a trait I often envy, so plan lots of fun activities to do together at home that will divert your children’s attentions away from any disappointment,” says Braid. “There are lots of ideas for activities, websites and resources being sent out by schools, so look out for updates from them. Planning other events or trips in the future may also help.”
Reassure them about exam results
“I have reassured them by referring to the government’s statement to make sure that children’s hard work is rewarded and fairly recognised,’ says Braid. “Their priority is to ensure that no young person faces a barrier when it comes to moving to the next stage of their lives. I’m sure that teachers will fight tooth and nail to ensure this happens.”
Look out for any differences in behaviour
“Most parents know their children better than anyone else. There will be changes in behaviour as we’re all having to change our behaviour right now, but be mindful of differences in the ways that a child might communicate with his or her parents - reduced appetite, becoming withdrawn or a lack of interest in things that they used to enjoy,” says Davis. “Others signs of anxiety in these circumstances could be washing hands until they’re raw, or real attention about how long they’re doing it for.”
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