It’s been a strange couple of years for us all. Few would have imagined that we would have had to face the global threat of a pandemic that saw us all having to test, isolate and miss out on the things we had all taken for granted – like seeing friends or family, socialising, being together. Some of the most profound effects of this have been on our children of the pandemic.
As adults we get exposed to many challenges across our years but for children this has been hugely significant. Our children have got used to mask wearing, frequent lateral flow tests, time out of school and away from friends and living with a level of fear and anxiety around infection. My own children remember clearly the time during the height of the pandemic in London, before we had the protection of the Covid vaccine, when I would return from working in the hospital and they couldn’t come near me until I had showered to make sure I didn’t bring Covid into our home.It’s difficult to comprehend the anxiety something like that generates.
To put some sense of the magnitude of the effects on our children of the pandemic, as early as 2020, a survey of 1,000 parents across the US, conducted by the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, found that 71% of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health, and 69% said the pandemic was the worst thing to happen to their child. A national survey of 3,300 high schoolers conducted in spring 2020 found close to a third of students felt unhappy and depressed much more than usual. The American Psychological Society brings where we are in 2022 with the starkly worded Trends Report; Children’s mental health is in crisis.
So how can we help them?
It was a scary time for them; schools had closed and they became fearful to leave the house at all, even for daily exercise. As a family we tried to embrace time together and create new memories of a time that would soon pass; the time when London slowed down and we began to hear the birds again as the traffic disappeared.
Most children are resilient and can adapt to new situations by just taking things in their stride. Others will find it harder and may be feeling sad or anxious, some even terrified.
So how do we support our children in navigating their way through these Covid-times?
It starts with encouraging open and honest conversations. Checking in regularly with your child about how they are, is key when we all lead busy lives. If we don’t ask, we can’t expect them to spontaneously share. Allowing children time and space to express their feelings, whatever they may be, is important.
For younger children, feelings may be communicated by a change in behaviour or routine. Although we naturally want to reassure, we also need to accept the way they may be feeling and try to understand it. We should all recognize that the mental health of our children is as important as their physical health, and of course the two are inseparable too in many respects. Remember that a healthy diet, exercise and encouraging healthy sleep habits are vital for all children physically and mentally. Things that perhaps seem less important when facing the magnitude of the pandemic may well be key to ensuring some sense of normality, and some of them, like diet or exercise, are huge important to mental wellbeing.
I would also encourage anyone who is concerned about their child to go and see your Paediatrician and discuss those concerns. It isn’t always easy to see what is going on but as parents we often know something is amiss. When it comes to child mental health, it is vital we don’t ignore those signs. You paediatrician should be able to signpost to more resources and support, and provide direct guidance on specific issues.