Although children are widely believed to be less susceptible to the physical symptoms of COVID-19, they are by no means unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the after-effects of this time could stay with our children and shape them for years to come, say researchers.
Children are at risk of lasting psychological distress, including depression, from the coronavirus lockdowns that have happened across the world, according to charity Save the Children. Its surveys of over 6,000 children and parents in the US, Germany, Finland, Spain and the UK found that up to 65 per cent of children were said to be struggling with boredom and feelings of isolation.
"Research shows that feelings of helplessness, loneliness and fear of being socially excluded, stigmatised or separated from loved ones are common in any epidemic," says the researchers, "while prolonged stress, boredom and social isolation, as well as a lack of outdoor play [a particular concern during the UAE's hot summer], can lead to a higher number of mental health conditions in children, such as anxiety and even depression."
And, although things have mostly opened up for children now in the UAE, the negative impact of this period of isolation could be far-reaching and continue for around 10 years or more after lockdown ends, says new research from the University of Bath.
"It is clear that there is strong association between loneliness and depression in young people, both in the immediate and the longer term," said study lead author Dr Maria Loades from the University of Bath in England.
Young people who have experienced loneliness might be up to three times more likely to develop depression in the future, and the impact of loneliness on their mental health could last for at least nine years, says Dr Loades, whose team analysed results from more than 60 pre-existing, peer-reviewed papers on children’s mental health.
The long-term impact of the pandemic on UAE children
This is a concern for many UAE parents, says Dr Paul Gelston, counselling psychologist at Dubai Community Health Centre, who has noticed an increase in children exhibiting behavioural difficulties as well as anxiety since the lockdown – which has got increasingly worse as time goes on. “From my perspective a lot of parents have been quite concerned about the lack of social interaction for children and how that’s affected their mental health,” say Dr Gelston.
“It’s really come to the forefront for me clinically speaking in the past few weeks. Children have been missing out on those social opportunities and it’s affecting their wellbeing. It can be even more of an issue in the UAE because many of us don’t have family here, so those opportunities to meet up have been missed even with the easing of restrictions.”
Although many of the restrictions have now been lifted and children under the age of 12 may now enter shopping malls, restaurants and entertainment venues, social distancing requirements and other restrictions are still in place, and of course the virus and its associated stress and worry has not disappeared.
The negative mental-health impact of not being able to play outside for an extended time over the lockdown may also be compounded now by the fact that it't too hot for most children to play outside in the UAE anyway: "People who are outside regularly have a lower activity in the part of the brain that focuses on repetitive negative emotions," says Anne-Sophie Dybdal, Senior Child Protection Advisor at the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Unit of Save the Children. "This is one of the reasons children can slide into negative feelings or even depression during circumstances [in which they are unable to be outside].”
But it is possible for parents to manage these difficulties and even use the situation to their advantage to teach emotional awareness and resilience, says Dr Paul Gelston.
By instilling self awareness and establishing clear lines of healthy communication, parents should be able to help safeguard their children against the negative impact of these past months of social isolation.
How to protect kids from the long-lasting impact of the pandemic
It’s important to be open with children about stress, worry and anxiety, particularly at a time when they are exposed to frequent news and discussions about COVID-19. Use the current situation to your advantage and see this as an example to talk to children about emotions. For example, many children will talk about the physical signs of anxiety when they are anxious, such as a tummy ache or headache. Talk to children about their concerns, acknowledge that it is a scary time for a lot of people, but reassure them about the strategies in place to keep them safe. For example, “We have to wear masks to keep everyone safe. We need to maintain a physical distance from our friends and school may be a little different next term, but this is to keep us all safe”. It can also be helpful to remind them that children tend to get a milder form of the virus.
Be Aware of the Signs
Notice the signs that highlight that children might be feeling anxious. Examples include physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches, appearing more fearful or nervous, refusing to eat, increased time spent watching the news or seeking reassurance to a greater degree than what is typical for them. Some children might ask a lot of questions or spend long periods of time discussing COVID-19, whereas others may avoid it completely and become distressed if it is discussed. Like adults, every child is likely to respond differently but it is important to recognise that there is no correct or appropriate way to respond to such an unprecedented global situation – acknowledge and accept that a range of responses and coping mechanisms are to be expected.
Be a Role Model
It can be helpful to remember that children learn how to cope with stressful events by directly observing the behaviour of adults around them. This is the case at any time of the year and is particularly important at the moment. If you are feeling highly stressed and worried, don’t beat yourself up about this – many people are, but try to manage your strong emotions when the children are around. Talk to your children about stress and worries, the physical and emotional signs, what you can do individually and as a family to manage these, and put these strategies in place together. This is a great way for your children to learn emotion regulation skills at a time of heightened stress. Encourage older children to limit what their younger siblings are exposed to, particularly if it is causing anxiety and worry.
Restrict Media and Warn About Fake News
We are undoubtedly exposed to higher levels of news information than we would be normally, which is affecting people of all ages. At the moment news headlines are full of alarming facts and figures, death rates, graphs and long discussions about COVID-19. Therefore it is important to limit children’s exposure to the news – particularly if this is making them more stressed or anxious. Be mindful of what news children are exposed to on TV, pay attention to their social media use and the news they can be exposed to there, and help your children to recognise and identify credible sources of information. It is helpful to be aware and to remind children that a proportion of social media news is false. Encourage your child to talk to you when they find news headlines or information stressful, and summarise findings when necessary as many children can often misinterpret what they hear on the news.
Schedule Family Time
Given that many people have been working and learning from home, the boundaries and rules have been blurred significantly. Schedule family time with your children and outline that this is specifically for relaxation, fun or enjoyment together. Examples can include a family movie, board games, living room picnics, cooking, arts and crafts or music and dance. It can be helpful to highlight that the goal of this is to re-connect as a family and to balance work and fun time, which will help children’s awareness of work-life balance, particularly when times are stressful. If you can try to spend a bit of time as a family outdoors, whether early in the morning or in the evening, then this is even better.
Set Some Structure
Structure and routine can be helpful for children who are anxious – this can be particularly useful during the summer holiday. Get up and retire to bed at consistent times, have meals together as a family regularly, and schedule relaxation time every evening. Other important activities for reducing anxiety during COVID-19 include regular social contact via video calls with friends and loved ones and getting regular exercise using online workouts. Use schedules and encourage your children to help set the structure for the family.
Seek Help if Needed
If you are particularly concerned about your child or are worried that things are becoming difficult to manage – ask for help. Contact a psychologist of paediatrician to consider the next steps to support your child.