Uncertainty, confusion, fear: we’ve known all these and more, in bucketloads, since March. But how have our children fared? What are the long-term effects of Covid-19 on them, and how can we help them navigate it all, whatever their age?
According to the experts, kids are resilient, and while we won’t know for a long time how affected they’ve been by the pandemic, they are wired to cope. However, children who have already experienced difficulties, especially mental health issues, are at particular risk. Just as important is your own mental health, which will have a huge effect on how your child deals with what’s happening, so don’t forget to look after your own needs, and to seek help – from friends, your GP, a therapist – if you’re finding it tough.
Be centred on – and guided by – your child. Each one is different, and each child’s reaction to the pandemic is different. Start with them, rather than with what’s happening out there in the big world. Here’s our stage-by-stage guide.
Newborns, toddlers and preschoolers
The pandemic hasn’t led to a baby boom, but babies are still being born. Covid-19 will probably mean you’ll want to limit your visitors, and some new parents may well be working from home after parental leave. “It all adds up to a lot more time together, just the three of you (or more if you’ve got older kids),” says NHS midwife Alexandra Walker, who co-runs an antenatal education service called The Naked Midwives. “So there’s not the pressure to have the house tidy for guests, or to have to look good yourself. If you like it that way, do what a pair of new parents we know did last week and put a polite notice on your door to say you’re not available just at the moment. You can capitalise on that time together getting to know the new baby, and not having to listen to lots of well-meaning but often conflicting advice.”
Under-twos are extremely resilient. The current reality is all they know. They live in the present, so they adapt easily
You may be worried about the impact on your young baby of not being able to socialise but according to consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron, that’s unlikely to cause problems. “It’s very important for babies to have contact with people, but it doesn’t matter if they don’t have contact with other babies,” she says. “Developmentally and emotionally, it won’t harm them. What is detrimental to their psychological health, though, is their parents being stressed and under pressure, or shouting at one another because they’ve been cooped up in a flat with no garden.”
The same goes for toddlers and pre-schoolers, she says. “The vast majority of very young children will be absolutely fine. Under-twos are extremely resilient and are highly unlikely to have any memories of this time when they’re older. Also, the current reality is all they know. They live in the present, so they can adapt easily to change.”
“Let’s face it: it’s not the toddler who desperately needs to see a variety of friendly faces, it’s the parents and siblings, many of whom really suffered because of the isolation of lockdown,” says Justine Roberts, founder and CEO of Mumsnet. So take advantage of the growing opportunities to socialise, albeit carefully, with picnics in the park and meet-ups in outdoor spaces.
If you’re overly anxious about the pandemic, your child is undoubtedly going to pick up on that and become anxious in turn – so it’s vital, says Citron, to address your own stress if it’s getting out of hand. “If you’re worrying unduly about the impact of Covid, you need to address that so you’re in a better place for your children,” she says. “Talk to people who can help, and your GP.”
Primary school age
Children over the age of three know something very strange has been going on – and they may be worried. Be alert for the signs, which can include sleep disturbances, clinginess, bedwetting, nervous twitches and excessive handwashing. If you see these changes in your child’s behaviour, go out of your way to reassure them.
Don’t let fear dominate, Citron says – and let your child lead on any worries rather than imposing your own. “So, for example, don’t spend all the time leaping in with warnings – ‘Don’t touch those railings!’; ‘You’re going too close to that man!’ Instead, say something like, ‘Remember, we’re meant to be keeping social distancing.’ Don’t ramp up the drama, and show that you can get across essential messages while remaining calm and unruffled. That way, children will feel safer and that life is more predictable – and you’ll be signalling that they have permission to ask the questions they want to ask without upsetting you.”
Children pick up very quickly on parents’ fears, so it’s better to be open about your own anxieties
Laverne Antrobus, child and educational psychologist at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, says it’s important to meet children’s concerns in an age-appropriate way. “When a child asks something, such as, ‘When is the virus going?’, ask first what they know and what they’re worried about,” she says. “You can then address them in the right tone and language, starting from their knowledge.”
Being honest with kids, even when you are feeling unsure yourself, is – the experts agree – best. “Children pick up very quickly on parents’ fears, so it’s better to be open about your own anxieties – maybe it doesn’t seem ideal, but there are dangers in letting children live in a happy but unreal bubble,” says David Messer, developmental psychologist and professor of education at the Open University.
Antrobus says the pandemic has brought a new level of honesty into family life. “In the past, parents might have said ‘Don’t worry’ to their kids – but the pandemic means they’ve seen their parents worried, it’s put everything on the table.” As with all traumas, it’s a learning opportunity that, in the long term, will boost resilience. “It’s about managing the setbacks and knocks and showing children how to use them to become stronger – and that doesn’t mean airbrushing them out, or pretending they’re not there, it means being clear about the fact that we’ve all been worried, that the virus is an unknown and in many ways it remains an unknown. But we need to show children that we can survive, even if things go against us in the future. So if there are problems ahead with, for example, a second wave, then, yes, we’ll be disappointed – but we will get through.”
You need to say something that conveys that there is a problem, but that it can be overcome; and that children aren’t usually at risk. So it could be something like: “I’ve been worried, and lots of other people have been worried. It’s a difficult situation: you might get it, although people of your age often don’t even notice they have it. It’s not a big risk to people of your age or my age; the risk is much greater for people of great-grandma’s age. But we will get through it, and that’s why we’re doing all these new things you can see, like people wearing masks.”
As things stand, school beckons: in Scotland, pupils are back in mid-August, in Northern Ireland, from the end of August, and in England and Wales from early September. “Schools will have contacted parents with guidance for the great return; find time to run through the rules with your child, because some measures will feel strange and may take some getting used to,” says Roberts. “If your child is anxious about change or new situations, try a bit of role play to help them find solutions to scenarios they’re worried about.”
It’s a mistake to think all teenagers found our changed lives difficult. “Many of the adolescents I’ve been in touch with have been surprisingly OK with it,” says clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Dave Spellman. “Lockdown gave them the chance to sidestep some of the anxieties and pressures they’re usually up against.”
Roberts has noticed the same. “Some older children really enjoyed spending time in a safe bubble at home, and in some cases this interval has revealed just how unhappy they were at school,” she says. If that chimes with what you feel about your kids, Roberts suggests you look at switching schools or even (if your circumstances allow) continuing with home schooling.
Most teenagers are relishing the chance to get out and about again – but not all. “Many young people who are anxious about leaving the house have other difficulties – phobias perhaps, or OCD – and the pandemic has brought them to the surface,” Antrobus says. You need to see the world from their point of view, and help them take small steps towards gaining more confidence – and if necessary, consult a professional.
This isn’t about just launching straight into the timetable. Pupils need to reconnect with their teachers emotionally
Young people who found friendships difficult before Covid-19 may have found lockdown easy – but emerging back into a social life may be tough. Antrobus says the first thing to do is acknowledge that there may be problems by talking it through; and then helping them take the first tentative steps towards rekindling links with their classmates.
Whenever school restarts, a big message from the experts is that a lot needs to happen before any academic learning is resumed. “This definitely isn’t going to be about just launching straight into the timetable,” Antrobus cautions. “First, pupils need to reconnect with their teachers – emotionally reconnect, with everyone sharing their experiences and being honest about how the pandemic has affected their lives.”
Resist the temptation to police how your teens follow the regulations, Citron says. “You’ve got to let them get out and about, and on with normal life, as much as possible,” she says. Better than trying to force them into doing things your way is to say to them: “This is the choice I would make, but I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m trusting you to follow the guidelines.”
Youngsters for whom Covid has coincided with a key crossroads moment have had a lot to deal with: the end of school life for my 18-year-old daughter came when she went out for lunch one day in March and returned to find a teacher at the gate telling her and her friends they couldn’t go back in. Exams, proms, parties, first forays abroad with friends and (for older students) graduation ceremonies and the first step on to the work ladder have all, for the moment anyway, been cancelled. In their place, uncertainty: will they be starting uni in the autumn? Will they ever get a job?
“They’re all going to have been affected to some degree – but to what extent may be unclear for some time,” Spellman says. As with the adult population, those who were already up against it with mental or physical health problems are likely to suffer most. “Trust your instincts,” says Roxane Caplan of children’s mental health charity Young Minds. “If you’re worried about how your child is coping, reach out for help to us, your GP, or other NHS services.” Young Minds’ research suggests older teenagers have struggled especially with loneliness, a loss of purpose and a lack of motivation. Caplan’s advice is to keep as much routine as possible in their lives – family mealtimes, for example, can be helpful – and to make space for doing fun things together. “Think of things in the future that you can all look forward to together,” she says. “Point out that the rules won’t be here for ever, and they’re not some kind of punishment, they’re to keep everyone safe.”
She recommends encouraging young adults to share what they feel about the current situation. If they don’t seem keen to talk, make sure you’re giving them space to do it on their terms; and/or try some conversation starters: “Do you have worries about going back to school/starting university/transitioning back to ‘normal life’?”; “How do you feel about things changing?”; “What makes you feel calm?”; “Is there anything you want to talk about?”
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“Give them space to express what they are feeling,” Caplan says, “and be willing to open up yourself. Remember you don’t need to have answers – no one does. But we all feel calmer, and happier, if we have a chance to talk about our feelings.”
Finally, look after yourself
Whatever age your kids, model a healthy attitude to self-care. “Lockdown meant parents had to give and give and give, with all sorts of additional pressures,” says Poppy O’Neill, whose new book 101 Tips To Help Your Anxious Child has just been published. “Now it’s time to set a good example and show you’re looking after yourself.” Schedule in times that are about fun, play and connecting – with them, with other adults, and with yourself.
Lockdown brought silver linings, and you might want to hang on to some of them. “We had Lego Mondays where everyone stayed in their pyjamas and played with Lego all day, and they were a huge success,” O’Neill says. “And daily walks together are something else we’re going to keep up.”
The truth is that parenting in a pandemic isn’t straightforwardly good or bad, easy or tough. For every frustration, there’s a liberation; for every challenge, there’s a blessing. Be open to the positives – and remember that better times will come.