The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everyone’s lives, and one of the unfortunate results of the stress caused by the disease has been a decline in mental health among both the young and the old.
To help people cope with the issues that have arisen due to the pandemic and the lockdown, Public Health England is running the Every Mind Matters campaign.
The latest stage of the campaign is aimed at helping children, young people and parents in particular, which is where the focus is required at the moment given the recent return to normal schooling for most families in the UK.
“Everyone has struggled in the pandemic and during lockdown, but for children it’s been particularly difficult, because they found themselves being taken out of school and then being at home with parents or carers who are also really stressed,” says NHS psychiatrist Dr Max Pemberton.
“We know children tend to be quite resilient providing there is a kind of stabilising force, namely their parents or their carer, in the background. One of the difficulties was that this was less stable for them. Then, just as they’re getting used to this new pattern, suddenly they are back at school, so they face disruption again.”
We asked Pemberton for his advice on how you can support your children during this uncertain period. Here he suggests and explains five things to focus on.
1. Be There To Listen
Of course parents listen to their children all the time, but this is about something different. This is about listening out for things they might be saying, or flagging up, that show the child is having a tough time or is stressed about things.
Set aside ten minutes a day where you sit down and ask your child how their day was. Don’t go in mentioning feelings or moods, because often children struggle to articulate their feelings. Sometimes things will manifest themselves in other ways, so instead of saying they’re really anxious, they might say they’re having difficulties at school, or problems with not wanting to eat or with not sleeping, which we would call biological symptoms. There can be quite significant changes in their behaviour which the adults can then pick up on and talk about their feelings on the back of that.
Often the child won’t have anything particular to say, which is fine. At least they know deep down that they have that opportunity every day where if there is anything on their minds, they can talk about it.
If your child really struggles with that scrutiny or attention you can combine it with something else, like washing up or bath time, so there’s a distraction for the child. Young children often find it difficult to sit there and talk about their day, and so do teenagers, who can feel persecuted, so they’ll often respond with grunting – but persevere. Try combining it with something like driving somewhere, where you’re in the car and you’re not looking at each other – it takes the focus and pressure off the child.
2. Support Positive Routines
Routine is fundamental, and people, particularly children, can withstand quite a lot of stuff provided they have some sort of routine. The difficulty is the routines will be disrupted and now we can’t even guarantee the routine we’ve got will stay the same. There might be changes with local lockdowns, or schools might be shut if there’s an outbreak so we can’t rely on school to provide a structure anymore.
Set up your own structure and routine outside of school. Stick to mealtimes and bedtimes, and lead by example. Make sure that there is structure on weekends too, such as on Saturday we always go for a walk at this time, or on Sunday we always do this one activity, so there’s a sense of structure and rhythm to a child’s life.
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3. Encourage Interests
Children haven’t been able to do a lot of their hobbies, so it’s important to encourage them to get back into the swing of things. Help them to get out and re-form friendship groups, see members of the family and get back into social circulation again.
4. Take Their Concerns Seriously
Some things that particularly younger children get worried about might seem a bit daft to us, or not that important. For example, we’re using words like shielding, which to a child sounds strange, and a child’s understanding of what a shield is relates to knights and wars and people needing to use shields. For us it might seem silly, but it can be a source of concern for them.
Try to take their concerns seriously. Engage with them, and try to understand where they’re coming from.
5. Stay In Their Lives
This is particularly for people like grandparents, brothers and sisters who may not live with their siblings, or children who don’t live with their parents or only with one of their parents. Make sure you make an effort to keep communicating. For example, it can be easy to just tell your parents how your children are doing, but make sure grandparents and grandchildren actually have a conversation so each knows the other is thinking about them.
Normally that wouldn’t matter so much if they’re meeting in person, but now people have to make a special effort to communicate with a child if they don’t live with them. Text them, email them, call them. Set up a regular time. This can be really important because these people can often notice changes in the child that people living with them day in and day out might not.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.