Coronavirus crisis and your kids: Experts reveal what you can do to help them cope as world changes around them

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Laura NewellThe West Australian
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How can parents soften the blow and protect both their children’s physical and metal wellbeing?
Camera IconHow can parents soften the blow and protect both their children’s physical and metal wellbeing? Credit: Justin Paget/Getty Images

The terrifyingly high death rate for people older than 70 from COVID-19 while children seem to escape relatively unscathed is perhaps one of the most startling facts about the virus that has swept the globe into crisis.

But while the physical risk to children of catching the disease is thought to be low, the psychological and social effects are likely to be far more wide-ranging and potentially long-term.

Not since World War II have our freedoms been so heavily curtailed. There’s no playing with friends, school’s now online, mum and dad are home and trying to work from temporary desks, no cinemas, no shops and visits to grandparents are definitely off the cards. And we don’t know for how long either.

The fast-paced changes are difficult for many adults to cope with — if we needed concrete proof of that, Lifeline and BeyondBlue have recorded a surge in calls with nearly a quarter of those linked to the novel coronavirus — but it can be even harder for young people who may not easily understand why their world has been turned upside down so entirely.

Parents are all asking the same thing — how can we best help guide and support our kids through this crisis? In a bid to help them answer that question, Agenda has spoken to Perth-based experts in the field.

TOUGHER THAN THEY LOOK

“Young people are highly resilient,” says Chris Harris Youth Focus’ community engagement general manager. “They sometimes liken it to a stream that gets blocked or restricted, young people find a way around that blockage, like a stream or a river.”

Reassuringly, he’s not alone in that view, it’s one shared by Curtin University senior lecturer Dr Garth Kendall, who specialises in developmental epidemiology. But his reassurance comes with a warning — parents’ behaviour right now will be key to helping children weather any physical and emotional toll COVID-19 might take.

And the proof of resilience among our youngsters seems to be in the pudding.

Working with youth aged 12-25, Youth Focus predominantly sees young people who are presenting with depression, anxiety, self-harm behaviours and thoughts of suicide walk through the doors of their offices at Burswood, Joondalup, Mandurah, Albany, Bunbury and Geraldton.

And as adult-focused mental health services start to see a rise in calls, it would be easy to assume services focused at young people would see a similar increase.

But while they have seen a rise and do expect a “marked increase in referrals” in coming months, Mr Harris, says they are seeing an interesting phenomena emerge in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak with existing patients.

Calm parents equal a calm child, experts say.
Camera IconCalm parents equal a calm child, experts say. Credit: Anchalee Yates / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

“When young people are in the midst of managing the crisis that is COVID-19, some of their other anxieties are being moved to one side,” he says, adding it was important to remember that it was normal for youngsters to react emotionally to the events surrounding the novel coronavirus.

“Young people are likely to see a marked increase in appropriate emotional responses and they are likely to be an increase in fear and anxiety, frustration and confusion and sadness and loss.

“It’s really important to note that these, in and of themselves, are not mental health issues — they are in response to a vastly changing world.”

KEEP CALM AND BE A ROLE MODEL

Calm parents equal a calm child, according to Dr Kendall, who is keen to urge parents to model the behaviours they want to see in their child.

“Mum and Dad are going to be very, very stressed,” he says. “You know what it’s like when that happens. You aren’t going to shout at the boss at work, you take it out on the people you love, the people closest to you. So there are going to be lots of situations where mums and dads are going to get worked up.

“COVID-19 may not affect most kids directly,” he says. “But if Mum and Dad are shouting at each other as a result of it, that is going to cause a huge amount of anxiety. Children are incredibly sensitive. It affects them not just psychologically, but we know from a great deal of research that it affects them physiologically as well.

“So I know it’s easy saying these things, but Mum and Dad, it’s the old thing going back to the Second World War —Keep calm. Don’t act out, don’t be shouting at each other, don’t take out all this anxiety around your children, you have to present a calm environment for them.”

Mr Harris said it was helpful for parents to turn worry into wonder.

“So rather than worrying about your kids, what we say is what parents are wondering what’s happening with them and then ask that question. Rather than concern, its curiosity.

“Checking in with them. How are they going with this and how are they feeling with not being able to contact friends and not going to school? That helps them regulate themselves and reduce the impact of some of these emotions.”

COVID-19 may not affect most kids directly. But if Mum and Dad are shouting at each other as a result of it, that is going to cause a huge amount of anxiety. Children are incredibly sensitive.

Gareth Kendall

He also agreed that what children saw in their parents is what they would emulate, adding naming emotions being felt by children and youngsters was important.

“All children and young people, because we are social beings, turn to adults to check out behaviour or facial expressions in any given situation. And that gives them them a cue as to how to respond to a situation.

“With COVID-19, if a young person turns and sees high anxiety in parents, or their behaviours, then the young person’s anxiety is likely to increase. But conversely, if they turn and see steadiness in their face and steadiness in their behaviour then the young person is likely to exhibit degrees of steadiness.

“It’s really important that parents are able to name these emotions too.

“For example that parents are able to say, ‘its OK that you are feeling sad, because there are many changes happening in your world and with change can come a sense of loss of your usual routine because you aren’t going to school’, so naming that, letting kids know that many people are feeling anxious right now and that’s a normal response — that’s what happens when a lot of rapid changes happen around us.

“How parents respond to this is going to be paramount.”

HOW TO TALK ABOUT THE BIG C

Far from entirely shielding your child from all coronavirus news, both Dr Kendall and Mr Harris say age-appropriate discussions about the pandemic could actually be beneficial for a child’s wellbeing.

“With all the questions and issues surrounding COVID-19 and the changes that families are experiencing — that children are experiencing — its so important that parents give developmentally, age-appropriate explanations,” Dr Kendall says.

With younger children, he advises framing the conversation around media they are comfortable and familiar with, such as a book about animals, or dinosaurs, explaining in simple terms that people have been getting sick and that sometimes they get so sick they have to go to hospital and so we are all staying at home to help those people.

“It’s a bit like telling kids about sex,” Dr Kendall says. “Two and three-year-olds wonder where babies come from: ‘Oh, Mummy and Daddy make babies, they have a special cuddle and that’s what happens’.

“For six or seven-year-old’s: ‘Oh well, Mummy and daddy they do a thing and they call it sex and boys have different parts, girls have different parts,’

“So that’s an analogy we could use. Kids have different capacity to understand different concepts at different ages.

“In that regard, I think for children at any age, despite the fact that we are constantly being reminded that this is serious and we have got to take it seriously, we don’t want to burden children with our worst fears with how these virus pandemic might evolve in the world or in Australia.

“Parents don’t want to get carried away in their own anxiety and be giving their children this sort of perspective that it’s all doom and gloom.”

Mr Harris said providing context and perspective on any information children and youngsters consume in relation to the pandemic was also key.

“The really important underlying message for parents will be to reassure their kids that remember, that all these measures that are being put into place are just about safety.

“And all we want to do is ensure people around us are safe and putting these restrictions, or these directives, in place is just how we are showing other people that we care about them. So the underlying message needs to be that this is about safety, even though it can feel like a very fearful and anxious time.”

He also said it was important not to just leave kids to interpret the news on their own and it should be limited to trusted sources.

“It might be saying, ‘Do you understand what that person said on there?” and it might be, ‘That person’s saying I can’t go to school’, and then you could you say, ‘yeah, that’s for a short period of time and it’s just so we aren’t going to spread this’.

“Having these conversations, is kind of giving them a reassuring update each day.”

KEEPING ACTIVE

As children across the UK were locked down earlier this month, fitness coach and TV presenter Joe Wicks became a household name without thousands of families joining his live physical education workout each morning.

And according to one Perth expert, families flocking to take part were on exactly the right track to keeping their kids healthy both mentally and physically.

Amanda Derbyshire is the program director for KIDDO. The program, run by The University of Western Australia, is offering up a suite of activities and challenges for children aged 3 to 8 to take part in at home amid the restrictions brought on by COVID-19 and Ms Derbyshire says keeping children physically active is an important part of helping them through the big changes being wrought on their lives right now.

“Physical activity is very important to build bones, muscles, prevent obesity and reduces the risk of disease, but we know there are so many mental health benefits too,” she says.

“That link between physical wellbeing and metal wellbeing is backed by research and is really well known.

“And physical activity allows kids to have a better outlook on life and it builds their confidence and, really important at the moment, also helps in managing anxiety and increasing self-esteem.”

Dr Kendall agrees. “Exercise is critically important, “ he says.

“I’m saying this from my background in epidemiology, there's so much research that shows us that daily physical activity is not just good for us in terms of our physical well being, but its the best thing we can do for our mental health and wellbeing as well.”

Ms Derbyshire says ensuring physical activity is included in a child’s day at home not only gives them a sense of normality, but also a feel-good boost.

“Particularly at the moment because children’s daily routines have been uprooted, they can be feeling anxious and they can’t go and do their structured sport or physical activity, they can’t go to the playground and all the things they would normally do.

“Physical activity gives a burst of endorphins. That correlates to a happy child and now, more than ever, it’s just really important to maintain a child’s health and have a sense of normality... (including exercise in their day) is one way to do that.”

Physical activity allows kids to have a better outlook on life and it builds their confidence and, really important at the moment, also helps in managing anxiety and increasing self-esteem.

Amanda Derbyshire

Ms Derbyshire said the benefits that exercise brings aren’t limited to young children either with the World Health Organisation poised to release a COVID-19 physical activity webpage for all ages within the next few days. And KIDDO is one of the sites set to be recommended by WHO on the site, alongside Sport Australia and the UK’s Cosmic Kids, among many others worldwide.

“I can’t over-state the importance of physical activity at the moment — it just gives that physical and mental health boost each day.

“Little bursts of activity can be something for the whole family to look forward to doing together and have fun with as a family.”

Equally, Ms Derbyshire said parents shouldn’t panic about children spending more time than usual in front of a screen while restrictions continued.

“Obviously at the moment children will probably be having a lot more screen time, parents are trying to work from home. And that’s OK, we’ve all got to do what we’ve got to do right now.”

ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE

All of our experts highlight having a good routine as one of their top tips for navigating the uncharted and choppy waters of sailing the pandemic sea with children.

Ms Derbyshire advises starting the day off with some exercise to get the blood pumping and then scheduling regular activity breaks throughout the day.

“Do some physical activity first thing in the morning to get everyone in the right mood and then ... have some ‘brain breaks’ — 10 minute activity bursts that are scheduled throughout your day.”

“That’s where things like KIDDO’s exercises and challenges come in.

“It can be kids being active on their own, giving them a break from screens — you don’t need any fancy equipment, they are fun, kids will look forward to them and that’s most important because kids will want to do them and it can be a bright highlight in their day.”

Mr Harris says it is important to ensure the daily routine also included a dose of fun, a sense of achievement, time for familial closeness and connectedness and measures to ensure good sleep hygiene.

“Sleep is our superpower,” he say. “It’s when we recharge. Go to bed at good times, shut screens down. Because once our structures are disrupted, sleep can be one of the first things that go.

“These routines and structures help us to regulate ourselves and are really important in terms of our well being. The absence of structure means that we will start to get overwhelmed with emotional response.”

Children function best when they have a good routine, according to Dr Kendall.

“Particularly young children, certainly primary school-aged children, absolutely need routine. They thrive on it.

“Now, with COVID-19 people’s routines are going to change. The normal thing that kids do is going to change quite dramatically, but I would suggest as soon as possible, parents want to get their kids into a new routine.

“Kids still need to go to bed at the same time at night and they still need to get up at the same time and have their breakfast in the morning. That will be incredibly helpful for children and it will help parents as well because kids who have that structured environment are likely to get on with it and be their behaviour is likely to be more appropriate — they are likely to cause their parents less stress.

“It's a little bit more difficult with teenagers because they want to be a bit more independent they create their own structure, but all kids — really all human beings — thrive when we’ve got that sort of routine.

“Kids may thrive on the new routines. If parents can help their children to understand and see this issue as a problem — which it is — that we can ultimately solve then that will really get kids on board and reduce their levels of anxiety hugely.”

CHRIS HARRIS’ TOP TIPS FOR PARENTS:

Structure. Have a routine in place which is as close to your usual routine as possible.

Talk often and reassure young people.

Emotions. Expect these emotional responses. They are normal.

Perspective. Try and keep things in perspective. You know this is about making sure people are safe. Outline what’s a reasonable amount of worry and what’s an unhelpful level of worry.

Support. There are plenty of resources available to help, including HeadSpace, Reach Out or BeyondBlue.

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