Coronavirus: Supporting children and young peoples' wellbeing
Coronavirus is affecting every part of how we live our lives. It’s not surprising that people are concerned about maintaining mental health and wellbeing. Many parents and carers may also be worried about the emotional health of their children and young people.
Some of the University of Salford's mental health lecturers - Celeste Foster, Rachel Price and Dr Tony Gill - pulled together their top tips to support the emotional health and wellbeing of children and young people during this difficult time, as well as some resources that may be helpful.
Managing worries and information
It’s normal for children and young people to feel worried or anxious at the moment. If a child has pre-existing anxieties, then these may be triggered or get a little worse. As a general rule, if children look at their parents and carers and see that they are ok and not panicking, then children themselves tend to be reassured.
Take time to explain what is happening to your children in the language that you would usually use with them, in a way that is straightforward and honest. Keep it simple, but try to answer fully. If there are gaps in information, children’s brains will naturally try to fill them, often with unusual or scary ideas. Don’t be surprised if you find that you have to repeat information a lot for younger children. Repetition is part of the normal way that children learn about new things.
Making handwashing into a game or song can help little children. Whilst explaining why handwashing works so well can help reduce the anxieties of primary school-age children.
Try to limit the amount of time that rolling news coverage is on in the house, even if you think your children are not listening. Pick one time in the day for updating yourself, and then (if children are listening) take time to answer any questions that they have about what they have heard. Rolling news coverage tends to repeat the same information in a range of different ways and to focus on dramatic or political dimensions of the crisis, which can increase worry levels in children.
For older children who have access to the internet, try to provide direction to trusted sources of information (BBC, government information) and help them understand how to make judgements about whether the information they are receiving is trustworthy or not. This exercise will also help them with the critical thinking skills they are expected to be developing in school.
The charity Young Minds has produced some very good advice and information for young people and parents about the coronavirus pandemic, with lots of tips and resources. Links are below.
Balancing structure, activity and relaxation
Children are just the same as us – their mental health benefits from regular routines, sleep, mealtimes, and a balance between exercise and activity and relaxation.
Keep as many regular routines as possible, so that your child feels safe and that things are stable. Promote a structured day with a balance between activities and relaxation, work and play. Whist it’s not possible to replicate the school day, it is important to remember that the reason that less structure at weekends feels so good, is because it is a change from the usual routine of weekdays. Therefore, it can be helpful to keep the same kind of shape and structure to the week as you would usually.
Limit exposure to news and screen time in the hour or so before bed and use low-stimulus activities (baths, stories, relaxation activities) to help children prepare for sleep time. Reducing screen time can be especially hard at the moment, as many free and useful resources are online. If your child is watching a film or engaging with some online learning activities/games, try and introduce some non-screen related activities that link to it. For example, they could write their own story or draw a picture inspired by what they have been watching or explain to you what they have learnt.
Children and young people need to ideally be active for 60 minutes a day, which can be more difficult when spending longer periods of time indoors. Plan time outside if you can do so safely or see www.nhs.uk/Change4life for some ideas for indoor games and activities. Also see Joe Wickes’ PE sessions online and CBeebies have a range of programmes that involve participatory dance and movement.
Opportunities for achievement, production and concentration
It is not possible to replicate school at home, and nor should we try. But there are things we can learn from school to help at home. Like adults, children’s mental wellbeing is closely related to a sense of achievement and producing or creating something. Teachers organise frequent opportunities for this. It could be getting a sum right, overcoming a difficult problem, learning a new concept; or activities such as writing and drawing, learning songs or playing instruments that have an end product. It can also be through making contributions to the classroom community – doing jobs or being in charge of particular responsibilities.
Think about parts of family life that your children can get involved in or take responsibility for. Can they help with some elements of preparing meals, getting the table ready, feeding the animals or watering plants? Perhaps you can learn how to bake something together?
Older children can use free apps to help learn a new language (Duolingo) or try YouTube videos to learn to play instruments or develop other new skills. The Open University has made some elements of its resources freely available. If it is safe to do so, think about whether fit and well older adolescents could help with jobs for more vulnerable people in your family, e.g. dropping off essential supplies. Helping in this way can being important feelings of self-worth and fight against feelings of powerlessness.
In the classroom, teachers also mix up the senses that a child has to rely on in order to achieve an activity to help children to concentrate and focus for long periods. Try moving between:
- Listening (story/circle time)
- Fine motor skills (writing, drawing, computer tasks)
- Gross motor skills (movement, exercise)
- Eye tracking (reading)
- Cognitive: problem solving (maths, puzzles)
- Cognitive: memory (spelling)
- Cognitive: imaginary (creating a story)
Bringing the world inside
The feeling of being cooped up and stuck can be offset to some extent by using resources that bring the outside indoors. There are lots of organisations curating these kinds of resources, but here are a couple of examples:
- The Guardian has recently put together 10 of the world’s best virtual museum tours
- The Royal Horticultural Society has put together a collection of activities that draw on nature but can be done indoors
- JK Rowling has launched ‘Harry Potter at Home’ webpages
Many people are already experimenting with apps sch as WhatsApp, Netflix, Zoom, Skype and Houseparty, to help them stay connected online.
If you are able to get to a post box or walk to family members’ front doors safely, then writing letters, drawing pictures and sending postcards can be a great way of helping children manage missing their grandparents, other family members or friends. If this is not possible, there are apps such as Touchnote that allow you to design and send postcards without having to step outside of the front door.
Some games also lend themselves to being played by phone or text – chess, if you want to work your brain, Top trumps or I-spy, if you want to just have a little bit of fun. Simple games can help younger children - who find keeping a conversation going harder - stay engaged in a call.
Managing difficult feelings when they do arise
Listening and acknowledging difficult or overwhelming feelings is by far the most important first step to helping children who are struggling. That said, it is not always to do this when feelings are being expressed through anger or challenging behaviour – so be kind to yourself about the moments when this doesn’t quite go to plan, there will always be another chance.
Reassure them that the feelings and the situation will pass in time, that you’re there for them, and you will get through this together.
The open-ended nature of the coronavirus situation can make it hard for younger and older children (and adults!) alike. Helping children of all ages keep in mind that this will not last forever is important. Practical strategies that help visualise the idea of a future without all of the current restrictions can help young children. E.g. getting children to put into a jar a post it with something they want to do when this is over.
The government has produced this helpful guide on supporting children and young people, which includes a helpful summary of how children at different ages might react to the stress of the situation. It also provides some guidance for supporting your children if they have pre-existing mental health or learning needs.
Children, young people and adults tend to become less stressed and distressed if they have a safe way to vent their feelings. Try and plan in advance ways that people in your house can do this safely, that work with your particular situation and space (shouting in garden, hitting pillows, jumping up and down, having a good cry…). If you co-parent it can also be helpful to agree in advance between you, some basic principles for how you are going to respond to emotional outbursts.
Looking after yourself
Keeping yourself well and being kind to yourself, so that you can be available to support your children is probably the most important step you can take to look after their mental health. You are their greatest resource.
Take regular breaks where you can and know that it is completely ok to have bad days, or to get frustrated. Your children want you as you usually are, with all of your usual foibles, quirks and faults. Familiarity is what makes children feel safe, not perfection.
Find information for young people about coronavirus and ideas for things to do while staying home on their website. The Mix’s emotional support services are open as normal – and if you’re under 25 you can talk to them about anything that’s troubling you over the phone, email or webchat. You can also use their phone or online counselling service.
If you're under 19 you can confidentially call, email or chat online about any problem big or small.
Contact them on their free 24 hour helpline: 0800 1111
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