What Long-term Impact Will Covid-19 Have On Children’s Mental Health?

    Woman playing with her child
    Published: 26 March 2021. Written by: Marina Gask

    The restrictions of lockdown, loss of routine and lack of social life have been tough on our young people and their wellbeing. Here’s how to help them recover from the impact Covid-19 has had on their mental health when we finally come out of lockdown.

    Whatever the effect on our own lives, the pandemic and lockdowns have certainly had an impact on our children on many levels, too. 

    Kids tend to thrive on routine, whatever their age, so the absence of many aspects of a child’s day that in normal times are reliable and predictable – such as school, socialising and time spent with extended family – will have had a considerable effect on both their mental and physical health. 

    Children from nursery age upwards have experienced the stress of adapting to home-schooling as their parents simultaneously work from home. Meanwhile, worries about the future have hit hard for older kids. 

    Add to this the boredom and isolation of having to live a restricted life and the lack of social interaction, and it’s hardly surprising that some children have suffered considerable distress over the past year. 

    More than half of parents have reported that repeated lockdowns have had a detrimental effect on their children’s mental wellbeing, with one third saying their children have shown a lack of energy and enthusiasm, and one in five reporting that their kids don’t sleep as well as they used to. Parents of children aged four to 10 have reported that, over a one-month period in lockdown, they saw increases in their child’s emotional difficulties, such as feeling unhappy, being clingy and experiencing physical symptoms associated with worry. 

    Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, psychologist, author and founder of online parenting community, The Village, says: ‘Now plans to relax the guidelines have been revealed, it gives parents hope and reassurance that there is light at the end of the tunnel.’ 

    So, as children gradually return to school and hopefully some sort of normality, how can parents support the young people in their lives to restore their mental equilibrium, catch up with their schooling and regain their confidence? 

    Woman playing with her child

    For babies and toddlers 

    ‘With no parent and toddler groups or direct access to health visitors, parents have felt lonely and isolated, which in turn has affected the relationship with the baby,’ says Dr Ben-Ari. 

    The Babies in Lockdown report revealed that almost seven in 10 new mums said their ability to cope with their baby has been impacted by Covid-19, and almost half of parents reported that their baby had become more clingy. 

    ‘Recognise that motherhood is a huge transition and not designed to be done in isolation, so reach out for support from family and friends to talk about what’s going on for you,’ says Dr Ben-Ari. ‘The more supported you are, the better you can show up for your baby, who will become less clingy if you feel lighter and less anxious.’ While it’s impossible to generalise about long-term effects on newborns, some experts believe that babies born during the pandemic could experience higher levels of depression and anxiety in 20 years’ time. Social support and increased physical activity will help to minimise the effects. 

    Schedule ‘coffee dates’ with old and new friends and talk openly about your feelings, worries and concerns. If you cut yourself some slack, recognise that you’re having to go through something extraordinary during extraordinary times, and focus on the emotional level of the family instead of things like chores, you will foster a more relaxed environment for all. 

    Man cycling with his child

    For primary-school-age kids 

    The long-term effect of missing school, social interaction and structure in the day has, for some families, been alarming when it comes to primary-age children. Primary school is when children are introduced to all the complexities of socialisation – from establishing basic interactive and behavioural skills such as sharing and playing (ages four to seven), to navigating friendships and the concepts of fairness and social acceptance (ages seven to 11).   

    The charity Action for Stammering Children reported that the number of calls to their stammering helpline increased by 57.6% over the first lockdown, related to anxiety over changes in routine and a decrease in confidence due to lack of interaction. 

    The good news is that the effects are unlikely to be long-lasting in younger children. ‘Once back at school, they will catch up and get back to normal pretty quickly,’ says Dr Ben-Ari. While it’s difficult to predict just how quickly that could happen (as this pandemic and lockdown are unprecedented), giving them the chance to talk through their feelings will help. The Mental Health Foundation advises how, ‘Many children and young people have experienced worries and distress about their education and returning to school… It’s important to facilitate support for children and young people that allows them to talk through some of these shared experiences and, in turn, validating their experience of lockdown.’

    Ensure you ask how their day has been: what did they enjoy or not enjoy and, most importantly, why. Make discussing their emotional response to the activities they took part in part of the conversation, so talking about feelings is normalised. Some great conversation-starter tips can be found here. Also, be aware that some children may actually miss the ‘benefits’ of lockdown: an increase in imaginative outdoor play and the constant presence of parents, which may have made them feel secure. 

    ‘Acknowledge when it’s been a bad day and try to lighten the mood,’ says Dr Ben-Ari. ‘Fostering good mental health is about the balance between stressors and resources – so make sure there is enough focus on the positive in your child’s day. Children are resilient, and if parents have been taking care of their emotional needs and been relaxed about other expectations, the children will soon settle again.’ 

    Children playing on their phones

    For teenagers…

    ‘At a time in their life when they should be able to separate from their parents, take a few risks and find their own identity, teenagers have been trapped indoors,’ says Dr Ben-Ari. As a result, some have become depressed and anxious, struggling to find the motivation to get themselves out of bed for their Zoom classes. 

    ‘Sadly, some are feeling despair. There has been an increase in cases of self-harm,’ she adds. And with young people stuck at home with only their computer or phone for entertainment, social media has ramped up their anxiety. ‘Help them by speaking with your teens in a relaxed way about what’s going on for them, without criticism or shaming and really listen with empathy and compassion.’ 

    Feeling understood and supported will make a world of difference to how they cope in the longer term. ‘Your teen may feel more stressed than usual about end-of-year exams or university, but if the family is offering a healthy environment and they have a good connection, then there is no reason that they should be impacted in the long term,’ says Dr Ben-Ari. 

    Man playing with his child

    Spotting signs of a mental health issue in your child 

    ‘If you see that your child is not their usual self, not doing activities that usually bring them joy, if they are turning more inward and not joining in with family interactions, these are signs that your child is struggling,’ explains Dr Ben-Ari. 

    She advises having regular time together each day to give you both an opportunity to chat, whether that’s a walk outside – especially if they spend a lot of the day indoors – or over a game or shared activity. And if you see a regression in your children’s mental health, listen to your instincts and create an opportunity for them to open up.

    How to get kids to open up about mental health

    With young children, encourage them to talk about how they feel and what their day was like, helping them express feelings through drawing and play. ‘It’s about making them better at feelings, not feeling better. They need to know that sharing emotions with people that are significant to them will make them feel lighter,’ says Dr Ben-Ari. 

    With older children, it’s important not to get angry or tell them what they should do. Find a way to add value, so they know they can come to you rather than just relying on friends or the internet for help. ‘Listen with compassion and give them space to reflect and work it out. Remind them of things they coped with in the past, so they know how resilient they can be with the right mindset,’ explains Dr Ben-Ari. There are more tips on how to get children to open up here.

    Take a look at these useful websites if you need some extra support

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