While one of my daughters is excited to be at home, the other is already missing her friends and has cried about not being able to visit her grandparents. Thankfully, children’s physical health may only be mildly affected by the new coronavirus, but their emotional health is at risk of being disrupted during this difficult and uncertain time.
‘It is easy to assume that younger children don’t understand and that the idea of a virus is too complex so it’s best not to talk about it. But suddenly children are having to wash their hands all the time and their routine is disrupted, which can lead to lots of confusion and a feeling of unsafety,’ says Dr Camilla Rosan, clinical psychologist and head of early years at the Anna Freud Centre.
‘It is critically important to talk to children whatever their age, even non-verbal babies, and try to explain what is happening in a developmentally appropriate way.’
She emphasises the importance of being clear, open and honest with children and going to trusted sources for information.
Under-threes may not understand why they are not attending nursery or seeing loved friends and family, but early years consultant Penny Tassoni warns that they will be ‘picking up enormously’ on adult behaviour and interactions.
‘While under-threes may not be worrying about their long-term future, they will be sensing the stress behind the situation,’ she says.
‘Three- to five-year-olds become increasingly more aware and will be understanding more about the conversations they hear. They may not understand the totality of the situation, but they have increased awareness. Children older than that are much more likely to understand but will not necessarily have the strategies in place to calm their fears.’
Young children often regress when they are worried – waking more in the night or having more toileting accidents. They may also display anxiety through a whole range of emotions, from overly excited to tearful.
‘Many children who regularly attend childcare will have gone through an abrupt leaving. If they are sessional, then they may not have had a chance to say a proper goodbye. Then there is the uncertainty that they don’t know how long they will be away for,’ says Ms Tassoni.
‘Remember that many children are in love with their key person and when we transition, we talk through what is happening next, but this has been very abrupt. Outstanding practice in this difficult time would be finding a way to contact children and let them know that they are still being thought about.’
Dr Jools Page, senior early years lecturer at the School of Education, University of Brighton, says we are social beings by nature and seek human connection from the day we are born.
‘Even though we may be physically distanced, we can still be socially connected and present for each other and for young children by communicating via online mediums,’ says Dr Page.
‘It is absolutely true to say we are living in unprecedented times, but in many ways the more things change, the more children stay the same. Young children have always relied on their key adults to support them through their life transitions and to be their constant source of reassurance through periods of uncertainty – a fact that remains right now.’
Children may feel a sense of loss that they are not seeing grandparents, friends or carers, but parents should talk about them and reassure them they are still there.
‘Children are very adaptable when they feel safe, secure and loved, so when physical contact from trusted adults beyond the immediate household is in short supply, then young children need to know that those important people remain in their lives and that they still love them and hold them in mind even when they are not together,’ says Dr Page.
OFFERING SECURITY AND REASSURANCE
Maintaining a routine is crucial to supporting young children’s emotional health. ‘It is a tough time for parents but they should do as much as they can to keep the routine normal, particularly around mealtimes and nap times because they are recognisable markers in the day for a child,’ says Dr Rosan.
‘Children thrive on routines because they are predictable and they help them to feel safe. Routine helps them to understand who they are as little people and helps them to feel in control of their life.’
Parents and carers should try to protect children from seeing high levels of distress wherever possible, be mindful of what they say in children’s earshot and keep news bulletins to a minimum.
‘Children need to know that those they love and trust to provide them with reassurance and security during times of uncertainty will continue to do exactly that,’ says Dr Page. ‘However, it can be easier said than done as the adults around them will be trying to come to terms with these strange new circumstances we are all in.’
She advises adults using simple language to respond to children’s questions, which may be multiple, in a way that is not alarming. Don’t be afraid to say if you don’t know the answer, or find it out together.
Ms Tassoni recommends taking the cue from children and asking them what they think is happening in order to gain a starting point to redress anything that is inaccurate and reassure them.
‘It is useful to say to children that adults get worried too and it is alright to feel worried,’ adds Dr Rosan. ‘We just have to be careful how much stress and worry we expose children to. If there are family members or friends with underlying health issues, then a child may pick up on this and think that they might die.
‘Try to be really clear with them that you are worried but that although a lot of people will get a cough and a fever, most do get better. Tell them that if we wash our hands and stay at home as much as possible, we are doing everything we can to keep ourselves safe.’
When children are worried or uncertain, they can act it out in their play or drawing – Dr Rosan’s three-year-old made a playdough virus. They had looked at pictures of viruses after she expressed worry that there is something in the air that could make her sick but she couldn’t see it.
It is also a prime opportunity to offer lots of role-play activity to support young children’s developing understanding of this new ‘normal’ so that they can make meaning from what they see and hear, adds Dr Page.
‘Children will need exercise and it is a good focus for both children and adults. Dancing, playing games and getting children involved in domestic chores will all keep children moving even in a confined space. Physical action helps children to sleep and the endorphins that are released from vigorous exercise counteract stress,’ says Ms Tassoni.
‘There will be more time to do things as a family – cooking, playing games, drawing and painting; there is the potential for it to be a strong bonding experience,’ she adds.
Consistency and calm are key. ‘Staying grounded will help adults as well as children,’ says Dr Page. ‘Use positive stories to show young children the good things that are happening to the planet, such as fish swimming in the rivers again, the significant drop in air pollution and the penguins exploring their environment at the zoo.’
CASE STUDY: Sophie Bell, teacher
Sophie is a teacher at Holbeach Primary School in Catford, south east London
‘“It’s like a holiday, but a really sad one,” was one of the comments from my Year 1 children as we prepared them as much as we could for the anticipated school closure. We spent a lot of time talking about our feelings in class during that last week, and there were lots of hugs – social distancing doesn’t come naturally to Year 1 – and hand-washing as they tried to articulate their mixed emotions.
‘Feelings of sadness, excitement, anxiety and loss were all prevalent. The sudden change and upheaval is a lot for adults to process, let alone young children.
‘It was a hell of a week, despite all staff coming together and being amazing. Sending the children home and not knowing when we’ll be together again is still heartbreaking. We told them that we loved them, that we’ll miss them and that we’d have a party when we’re all together again. Demands for balloons and chocolate cake were made.
‘While school work and learning is really important, our children’s happiness and mental health is much more so. I’m asking our parents to hug their children, read and sing together, spend time drawing, cooking and playing. Talk to them in an age-appropriate way about how they are feeling and let them feel heard. They’re experiencing loss as their friends, familiar adults and routines are all gone.
‘Bert, our class bear, is posting regularly on the school blog to help reassure the children. He recommends talking about feelings or, if that’s too hard, drawing them.
‘We need to help children to gradually process this strange time as we look forward to that party. We’ll get through it together.’