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How is COVID affecting kids’ mental health?

13 July 2020
3 minute read

Little boy sitting on the couch looking sad

The pandemic and lockdown have changed children’s lives in many ways. Disrupted routines, uncertainty and parental anxiety can have an impact on children’s mental health. We spoke to counselling psychologist Reabetsoe Buys about the mental health effects she is seeing in kids, and tips for how you can help your children navigate this strange time.

How children are affected by COVID-19 and the lockdownThe COVID-19 pandemic might be just a vague concept for younger kids, but some children will feel fearful about the virus. They may be scared of getting sick, and in particular worried about how it might affect their grandparents.

As well as worrying about the virus, children are feeling the effects of the lockdown, which has left them more socially isolated and spending way more time at home and with the family.  Almost overnight children had to stop going to school and visiting friends and relatives over the weekends. Not only is this very confusing for them, but it has given rise to feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability,” says Reabetsoe.

Now that schools are reopening (and sometimes closing again), the environment is very different from what children were used to, and that in itself can be confusing and unsettling.

These fears and uncertainties can affect children in different ways. Reabetsoe says you may have noticed:

  •  Increased anxiety, clinginess and fear
  • “Big” emotions, as in emotional outbursts, anger and irritability
  • Changes in sleeping and eating habits
  • Bodily complaints like stomach aches or headaches which seem to have no medical basis
  • Regression, such as being afraid to be sleep in own room
  • Feelings of sadness and loneliness, and missing school and their friends
Fortunately, children are much more resilient than we think.

How to help your children cope “Fortunately, children are much more resilient than we think, so as a parent/guardian try not to panic when your child shows any changes in their functioning during this time,” says Reabetsoe. Here are ways you can help your child cope:

With worry about COVID-19

  • Find out what they already know. Then you’ll be able to fill in the gaps. But if they don't seem interested or their questions are few, that’s also OK.
  • Talk about COVID-19 openly. Keep your information factual and calm.
  • Provide context. Inform them that children don't get as sick as adults, who get symptoms similar to those of flu. Also explain that most people who get the virus do recover.
  • Focus on the positives. Talk about the measures being taken to keep people safe and healthy, and that by washing their hands often, wearing masks and getting enough sleep, they’ll stay healthy and strong.

With the lockdown

  • Acknowledge their feelings: allow your child to tell you what they’re thinking and feeling. Check in with them regularly.
  • Empathise and normalise their feelings. It’s completely normal and understandable to feel worried or cross or lonely.
  • Reassure them that they are safe and taken care of – extra cuddles go a long way!
  • Share age-appropriate information with them so that they understand the limitations (e.g. we cannot go out because we need to make sure we keep safe in our home).
  • Routine, structure and consistency create a sense of stability and security.
  • Get them involved in planning fun activities which the family can do together.
  • Make time for fresh air and exercise.
  • Do not stress over schoolwork if it becomes unmanageable at the moment, especially when children are young – it is already a stressful time!
  • Set up video playdates so your child can be in touch with friends, cousins and other family members.

Take care of yourselfParents are experiencing their own stresses around health, safety, finances, family and the future. Children are sensitive to their parents' feelings of stress and anxiety. Try to take care of yourself and manage your own stress and anxiety as best you can. Make time to connect with other adults and nurture those relationships and get help when you need it.

Seek help for your kids“While we are still trying to navigate this time, it is just as important to keep an eye on changes which might indicate a significant impact on mental health and well-being. If symptoms persist or worsen, reach out for assistance or support. Many therapists are conducting virtual sessions for adults and children,” says Reabetsoe.

Get help

  • South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), (011) 234 4837
  • Lifeline SA: 086 132 2322.

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