We hear that the pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of children. We have heard this frequently stated on TV and radio shows, in newspapers and magazines and on social media. But what does that mean for our own children?
I was walking to school with my 8 year old boy earlier this week and out of nowhere he said “Mummy, I can’t wait for this pandemic to be over”. I asked why and he said “because I will be able to play with Ben (best friend) on the playground”. He went on to say that he has been sad because he has had to play in a different area of the playground to Ben everyday.
I knew that the playground had been separated into areas for different bubbles since September last year. I knew my son was able to see but not play with Ben, he has talked about how they can talk to each other across a picnic bench separating the areas so they stay can two meters apart. I knew he had other friends to play with in his bubble. I saw he has been happy to go to school. Until he made this comment, I did not know that he has been feeling a bit sad each day at break and lunch times. This got me thinking about how we can consider the impact of the pandemic on our children's emotional well-being.
I started to consider things from a child's perspective. Eighteen months ago they were following their familiar routines each day, going to school like they had done for some time, meeting up with their friends, playing their usual games at break and lunchtimes. Going for play dates, engaging in after school clubs and hobbies. Going on and looking forward to holidays, celebrating significant events such as birthdays with parties, doing a range of fun weekend activities including going to the park with friends and family, eating out at restaurants, maybe going to the cinema and swimming. Making plans and knowing in all likelihood they would happen. Then all of a sudden this STOPPED.
They were told about a virus, that they needed to stay away from their friends, teachers and family members including their grandparents. Adults started wearing masks. They were told to wash their hands and when they went into some places they had a device pointed at their heads to see if they were too hot. There was a clear message that we were doing these things to keep everybody SAFE. There were some positive aspects including a slower pace of life, more time at home as a family. But lets not kid ourselves, ours and our children's worlds changed literally overnight.
Routines, familiarity, being close to key adults and friends are so important to children, they bring a sense of enduring safety. The changes that were brought in to keep us all safe from the virus, would have actually made children feel UNSAFE. As parents we have done our best to reassure our children, to carry on and to support them. We have tried to make life as normal as possible. We have helped with home schooling (as best we can), we have been out and about when we can (for us, sooooooo many walks in woods!), we have arranged to speak to family and friends over zoom, we have arranged safe meet ups with small groups of friends in outside spaces (when allowed). Now we hear that bubbles and face masks will go and our children are able to re-engage with all activities, meet up with friends, maybe even go on holiday (or maybe not). In my clinical practice now more than at any point in the pandemic, I am hearing about children having a lot of worries, being nervous to go to school, showing emotional outbursts, presenting with what seems to be anxiety. So why are we seeing our children struggle now?
These are all understandable responses to yet another transition in all of our lives, which still comes with a degree of ongoing uncertainty. Once again making it challenging to find a secure sense of safety. I wonder how much children have understood and taken in about what has happened in their lives?
My advice is to take time to ask you children what is going on for them. Accept what they tell you and be curious by asking them to tell you more or to draw a picture. Help them label any feelings and empathise with them - let them know that you get it, you understand why they feel the way they do. Feeling nervous, scared, sad, angry, happy and excited are all legitimate responses to have right now. Listening to children is the best way help them process events and resulting emotions. Try not to jump straight in, to reassure and problem-solve. First, just take a little time to make room for, consider and understand the feelings.
I would be really interested to hear what other parents are noticing about their children at this time and what they are doing to support them. Please feel free to leave comments below or send an email to Beck@drbeck.co.uk
Dr Beck x