How COVID-19 affects children.

02-Apr-2020 | News | Petronella Chindumba

How does COVID-19 affect children? A child psychologist weighs in.

Elisabeth Kaspar, a clinical psychologist, works with children and adolescents at a hospital in Vienna, Austria. She shares some advice on how parents and caregivers can best help their children manage the stress and anxiety of the COVID-19 crisis.

COVID-19 has altered the lives of millions of people. In what ways will COVID-19 affect the mental wellbeing and health of children?

COVID-19 affects all of us, no matter how old we are. Like with everyone, not every child reacts the same way. Some children might not be very concerned, whereas others develop unpleasant feelings. Like adults, children also have different personalities and levels of resilience, which affects their wellbeing.

Some children might develop higher levels of stress, feeling restless or grumpy. Some might develop anxiety and become irritable, aggressive or scared. Depending on how long the situation lasts, feelings of sadness or depression could appear, which could lead to social withdrawal or crying.
All these feelings can also display in physical reactions including stomachaches, headaches, or loss of appetite.
 

Reactions to the pandemic, including school closures, home office and the closing of all non-essential shops, have essentially put life as we know it on hold. Which of these changes has a particular effect on children?

The lack of routine is probably one of the biggest factors affects children. Routines (e.g. getting up at 6.30 am, kindergarten/school from 8 am to 3 pm, meeting friends, having dinner, going to bed at 8 pm) give children structure and a framework they can rely on, which is very important. Routine and structure give them a feeling of safety and comfort.

Another big thing is the loss of social contact. Imagine how children miss their grandparents, playmates and friends! Younger children are not even capable of getting in contact with their friends/grandparents by themselves. To accept the recommended and necessary barriers is difficult for us adults and probably much more difficult for our little ones.

The fact that many parents have to do home office now is also not easy for children to accept and understand, especially for the younger ones: “My mom/dad is at home and has no time for me?” Just keep in mind that this situation, as difficult as it is for you, is also difficult, new and unexpected for children.

Finally, the impact of media can have a negative effect on children, just as it might have on you. The continuous stream of reports and pictures of people who are getting sick and even dying that children are seeing on TV, the radio, and social media can lead to fear and anxiety.

It seems that there is no certainty about how long the measures being imposed around the world will last. Will staying home and out of school for a longer period have a greater effect on their mental health, or will they adapt over time?

Fortunately, people, including children, are very flexible and adaptable beings. Still, the longer children are not allowed to have direct contact with their friends and grandparents, the more they will miss them. Staying at home for a long time can be tough, feelings of isolation and fear could appear. Cabin fever could arise when the whole family is together 24/7 for many weeks. This can lead to conflicts within the family which also can frighten children.  

What can parents and caretakers do to alleviate the mental stress that the pandemic places on children?

1. One of the most important things is talk to them! Talk about what is going on, ask them about their thoughts and feelings. Be there for them when they are upset because you have to cancel their birthday party, or because they can’t see their grandparents. Be a compassionate and safe adult for them. Research shows that this has a very calming effect on kids.

2. Let your children play. Free and undirected playing is essential for their emotional well-being, especially in these times. It also has a tremendous impact on their cognitive and social development. Through playing, children express and conquer their feelings which helps them develop emotional strength.


Petronella Chindumba
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