Regardless of their age, this may be a difficult time for children and young people. Some may be absolutely fine and cope well with your ongoing care and support, whilst others may react immediately, while others may show signs of difficulty later on.
How a child or young person reacts can vary according to their age, how they understand information and communicate, their previous experiences, and how they typically cope with stress. Adverse reactions may include thinking about their health or that of family and friends, fear, avoidance, problems sleeping, or physical symptoms such as stomach ache.
This advice is to help adults with caring responsibilities look after the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Looking after your own mental health
As well as thinking about the children or young people in your care, it is important to take care of your own mental health and wellbeing. Children and young people react, in part, to what they see from the adults around them. When parents and carers deal with a situation calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support for their children and young people. Parents and carers can be more supportive to others around them, especially children, when they are better prepared.
There are some key points you can consider about how to support your child or young person.
Listen and acknowledge
Children and young people may respond to stress in different ways.
Signs may be emotional - for example, they may be upset, distressed, anxious, angry or agitated.
Signs may be behavioural/emotional - for example, they may become more clingy or more withdrawn, or they may wet the bed, or physical - for example, they may experience stomach aches.
Look out for any changes in their behaviour. Children and young people may feel less anxious if they are able to express and communicate their feelings in a safe and supportive environment. Children and young people who communicate differently to their peers may rely on you to interpret their feelings. Listen to them, acknowledge their concern and give them extra love and attention if they need it.
Provide clear information about the situation
Children and young people want to feel assured that their parents and carers can keep them safe. One of the best ways to achieve this is by talking openly about what is happening and providing honest answers to any questions they have. Explain what is being done to keep them and their loved ones safe, including any actions they can take to help, such as washing their hands more often than usual. Use words and explanations that they can understand.
There are resources available to help you do this:
Be aware of your own reactions
Remember that children and young people often take their emotional cues from the important adults in their lives, so how you respond to the situation is very important. It is important to manage your own emotions and remain calm, listen to and acknowledge children and young people’s concerns, speak kindly to them, and answer any questions they have honestly.
Create a new routine
Life is changing for all of us for a while. Routine gives children and young people an increased feeling of safety in the context of uncertainty, so think about how to develop a new routine, especially if they are not at school.
Limit exposure to media and talk more about what they have seen and heard
Like adults, children and young people may become more distressed if they see repeated coverage about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the media. A complete news blackout is also rarely helpful as they are likely to find out from other sources, such as online or through friends. Try to avoid turning the television off or closing web pages when children or young people come into the room. This can peak/heighten their interest to find out what is happening and their imagination can take over. Instead, consider limiting the amount of exposure you and your family have to media coverage.
Young people will also hear things from friends and get information from social media. Talk to them about what is happening and ask them what they have heard. Try to answer their questions honestly and reassure them appropriately.
How children and young people of different ages may react
All children and young people are different, but there are some common ways in which different age groups may react to a situation like the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Understanding these may help you to support your family. The common reactions to distress will fade over time for most children and young people, though could return if they see or hear reminders of what happened.
Infants to 2 year olds
Infants may become more easily distressed. They may cry more than usual or want to be held and cuddled more.
3 to 6 year olds
Preschool and nursery children may return to behaviours they have outgrown. For example, toileting accidents, bed-wetting, or being frightened about being separated from their parents or carers. They may also have tantrums or difficulty sleeping.
7 to 10 year olds
Older children may feel sad, angry, or afraid. Peers may share false information but parents or carers can correct the misinformation. Older children may focus on details of the situation and want to talk about it all the time, or not want to talk about it at all. They may have trouble concentrating.
Preteens and teenagers
Some preteens and teenagers respond to worrying situations by acting out. This could include reckless driving, and alcohol or drug use. Others may become afraid to leave the home. They may cut back on how much time they connect with their friends. They can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions and feel unable to talk about them. Their emotions may lead to increased arguing and even fighting with siblings, parents, carers or other adults. They may have concerns about how the school closures and exam cancellations will affect them.
Penumbra have developed guidance to help your preteen or teenager through this challenging time. Visit the Penumbra website for help and resources on keeping well.
Additional guidance on looking after children and young people during the coronavirus outbreak can be found on the NHS website.
Overall, try and reassure yourself about the steps you are taking and that you are doing the best you can. It might be useful to think what will your child or children remember about this time:
- Did they feel cared for, not scared?
- Did they feel connected, and not alone?
- Did they enjoy playing and having fun?
We can’t always control what happens but we can try to help ourselves feel in control through what we do.
Download our wellbeing renewal guide (PDF 1.03Mb) on supporting worries children might have about returning to school.
Relaxation ideas for young people
Why not try some of these relaxation ideas to help keep calm.