Coronavirus may be affecting your child’s mental health – here’s one simple thing you can do to help

Are you stressed or anxious about Coronavirus? You’ll be in good company if you are.

At the start of the lockdown 1.0 almost 50% of adults reported feeling high levels of anxiety. This has since dropped but is still at around 39% in people who are married or in a civil partnership - up from 19% in the last quarter of 2019. Figures show that the equivalent of 19 million adults report high levels of anxiety. 1 in 5 people said that their work was difficult due to working from home.

I’ve met no end of people who said they are experiencing anxiety for the first time in their lives, due to the pandemic. And this is just the adults.

In an NHS survey of parents in July 2020, 36.7% of children aged 5 to 16 years had a parent who thought their child was worried that friends and family would catch COVID-19., and 22.3% thought their child was worried about catching it themselves. 37.7% of parents thought their child worried about missing school due to home-schooling. 22.5% of 5 to 22 year olds were having trouble sleeping and 10.1% always or often felt lonely.

Sound familiar?

Many of these children will be having these worries for the first time too, but unlike adults they often don’t have the words to explain it, or the understanding of their body and emotions to understand what it is.

As parents we sometimes forget that children have the same worries and anxieties as ourselves. We think we are hiding our worries from them – protecting them. All too often we’re not. Children see and hear far more than we realise, and pick up on emotional undercurrents without really understanding what they are.

It is tempting to feel that because they are younger and smaller than us, their lives are smaller than our own and therefore their worries are smaller. You may worry about paying the mortgage and losing your job, while your 4-year-old is worried about what colour beaker he’s drinking his juice from, or your 10-year-old is worrying about whether someone has trashed his Minecraft house while he was offline. That’s not a real worry, right? Wrong. A small worry in a small body takes up the same amount of space as a big worry in a big body comparatively.

Your worry about whether your job is in danger might seem small against the Prime Minister’s worry about whether to close businesses to save lives or keep them open and risk killing thousands of people, but it’s YOUR worry and YOUR reality and to you it’s huge. What’s one job compared to thousands of lives? Well, nothing, until it’s your job.

Your kids are just the same. You may not be able to understand their worries, just as they struggle sometimes to understand yours, but that doesn’t make them any less important to them. And right now, many of their worries are the same as ours.

So what can you do to support your child’s mental well-being during the Coronavirus (or any other time)?

Understand that all behaviour is communication – and listen!

When a baby cries she has a need. We pick them up, cuddle them, sniff their bottom, offer them milk, wind them, sing. We realise, usually, that the baby’s behaviour is a sign that something isn’t quite right, and we need to try and find out what’s wrong because we understand they can’t communicate it themselves. At some point in their little lives, once they begin to speak and understand, we seem to forget about this truth – that all behaviour is a way to communicate an inner need – and expect them to just be able to articulate their problems and worries.

Like we adults do, right?

Yeah, right. How many times have you been cranky when you’re hungry? Or snapped at your partner because something at work went wrong? Or been impatient your with child about something you’re normally pretty calm about and realised afterwards it was because you’re tired after a late night?

If your child is ‘acting out’ – shouting, hitting, refusing to follow requests, refusing to talk on the phone to a relative, being picky with food, coming downstairs a million times at bedtime, being needy, attention seeking or countless other behaviours – then there is an emotion or reason behind it. Working out what it is can sometimes be difficult, but often you don’t need to – you just need to let your child know you care and you take her feelings seriously.

Imagine this scenario:

James normally enjoys school. His teachers are always happy with his work and he normally gets dressed and out the door quite happily in the morning. He comes out with a smile and, while he doesn’t tell you much about his school work, he’ll talk about how many goals he scored at lunchtime. Since his school closed due to the Covid lockdown, he is refusing to do his school work. He won’t even log on to the learning platform. As soon as you mention school work he stamps out of the room, slamming his bedroom door. If you print the work off he shoves it in the bin or tears it up. All he wants to do is play on his PlayStation and if you force him off of it to go out for a walk with you he’s started to shout and throw his controller across the room. It’s a battle to get him to leave the house.

So, what’s going on with James? What feelings are going on inside him? Clearly anger. But what is underneath that anger?

It’s helpful to think of anger as an iceberg – it’s the bit that we can see above the depth of other emotions, but we need to look beneath the surface to see what other emotions have caused it.

His school has closed – again! – just when he thought that it was all getting better! Just as he was getting used to the change at school – the classroom bubbles and having to think about what you’re touching and where you’re going all the time. The timetabled toilet breaks and cold classrooms because the windows and doors had to be open all the time.

He’s JUST got used to it and now he's back at home. Away from his friends. Away from playing football at lunchtime and just hanging out and chatting. Away from everything that was normal. Will it ever be normal again?

He doesn’t want a reminder of school. He doesn’t want to see his teacher on a screen! He misses her, and he misses his mates and he misses his old life. He plays on the PlayStation because he can meet his mates there on multiplayer games and chatrooms. That feels as close to normal as he can get. And he’s afraid it’ll always be like this.

And perhaps he’s afraid someone he loves will catch it and die, because that’s what all the adults have been hammering home – if you don’t wash your hands you could pass it on to someone and they could die. He’s safer staying at home. He doesn’t want to forget to wash his hands and kill someone.

That’s a lot of feeling for one person. That would be a lot of feeling for an adult who, in theory, understands their emotions and can regulate them and has coping tools. And yet we know that even adults struggle with these feelings and the anxiety around Coronavirus, so how can we expect kids cope any better?

So, what can you do?

Empathising is a good first step.

Here’s a little thought experiment to try:

Imagine a work colleague was rude to you – they stole your snack and then got you in trouble with your boss. You’d be pretty annoyed, right? So what if you came home and started to tell your partner:

“You’ll never guess what Charlotte did at work today!” You dump your bag on the chair and stare at them expectantly.

Your partner glances up from where he’s chopping vegetables for tonight’s meal, “Don’t slam your bag down, and take you coat off. Have you got any homework?” He turns away again.

“She is such a cow! You’ll never guess what she –”

“We don’t call people names in this house. When you calm down you can tell me. I’m busy right now…”

How would you feel? Would you calm down? I’m pretty sure not. I know that would just wind me up more! He’s not listening! He doesn’t seem to care! You’re more angry and, what’s more, you’re not likely to bother trying to talk to him again about your problems.

But we do that to our kids all the time. We don’t accept their anger. We don’t try and find out what’s beneath it. We just want them to stop.

How about this instead?

“You’ll never guess what Charlotte did at work today!” You dump your bag on the chair and stare at them expectantly.

“Wow, you sound really angry. What happened?” Your partner puts the knife down and turns to face you.

You tell him all about your day and as you speak and he listens you feel the fire of the anger seem to ebb. It’s good to get it out of your system and for someone to seem to care.

“Aw, hun, that sounds like you’ve had a really rough day. Do you want a hug?”

Later that evening when you’re calm, you talk it through and wonder if Charlotte even knew that was your snack – you had left it on the staffroom table, after all. And perhaps she hadn’t meant to get you in trouble? Maybe she had but being mad won’t help.

Two very different outcomes from one very simple change: being listened to and having someone empathise.

If we think back to James, his parents can either get angry back at him: shout, take away his PlayStation, force him out for exercise…or they can try and understand what’s going on.

What does this look like? We can break it down into 5 steps:

Step 1: Tune in to your child – are the acting differently? Quieter than usual? Eating less or more? Grumpier? Get to know your child and watch out for their body language, posture and tone of voice.

Step 2: Connect with your child – try to see moments of emotion as opportunities to connect and learn. This is about changing your mindset about their behaviour.

Step 3: Listen – don’t assume you know what’s going on; don’t try to just cheer them up straight away – really listen to what they’ve got to say, with no distractions

Step 4: Identify and name their emotion. Naming an emotion has been shown to decrease the activity in the brain associated with that emotion. You can name the emotion to tame it. “I wonder if you’re feeling sad that you can’t see your friends?” “Perhaps you are feeling worried about doing your school work?” Try and listen to what they are telling you and name that emotion (this doesn’t work so well with teens!!).

Step 5: When they are calm – work together to find solutions together. Don’t try to do this too soon. When our emotions are high the thinking part of our brain disconnects. Trying to get them to think (Don’t use ‘why’) can just further upset and frustrate them!

Throughout all of this- STAY CALM!

Try it next time your child’s emotions run high. If they think you’ll listen to them, even if the problem can’t be solved, they’ll be more likely to come to you with their problems in the future- and you’ll appreciate that when they hit their teens!

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