How to support your children’s mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic

Going for family hikes and spending time out in nature can help relieve stress and anxiety.

Paedspal Paediatric Palliative Care, South Africa’s largest NGO providing palliatve care services, grief counselling and support to children and their families shares some tips on supporting children through the pandemic…

While Covid-19 is predominantly a physical illness, its impact on mental health, is becoming clear. Worldwide, there are reports of significant increases in levels of stress, fear, anxiety and depression among children and adults. Loss of lives, livelihoods, social isolation and an unpredictable future, all contribute to this disturbing upward trend.

There are many types of loss and grief that children experience during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is not an understatement to say that our lives have been completely turned upside down over the past months. Overnight, the life that we knew no longer exists. We have had to adjust to lockdowns, social distancing and a very uncertain future.

Adults and children alike, are all facing different kinds of struggles and emotions, some of which may feel very uncomfortable.

Loss of a routine or a daily rhythm in life

Perhaps one of the greatest losses we have to endure, is the loss of a daily routine and lifestyle that made us feel comfortable. This routine brought structure to our lives, lessened feelings of anxiety and increased our sense of purpose. The disruption of the school year in 2020 has had a major impact on children from preschoolers to high school pupils having to adjust to home-schooling and distance learning and in some cases periods of no schooling at all.

Loss of connection and being close to each other

We are social beings who need to be close to each other and spend physical time together. Being far apart, not able to spend time with extended family, our faith community, socialise with friends, hug or touch each other, is difficult.

Loss of a special celebration, a job or a future

Losing something that brought meaning to our lives or something to look forward to, can be devastating. Losing the opportunity to attend a once-in-a-lifetime celebration or a job when it was exactly the thing that brought meaning to our lives, or worst, a job that brought food on the table of our loved ones, can be unthinkably emotional. For some of us, it is the prospect of a future job or something else that may be significant in the future, like a big event, that was cancelled.

Loss of a loved one

Some of us may experience the most significant loss, and that is of a loved one, during this time. Losing a loved one is the most devastating loss of them all. There is no other pain like that of losing someone close, but in this time of isolation, there will be extra layers of grief.

We may not be able to be with loved ones when they are ill or at their bedside when they die. The emptiness of not being able to touch someone may result in complicated grief.

It is important to acknowledge the losses that we experience and the deep emotions that come with this. It is okay to feel these feelings and it’s okay to experience them differently to our family members, our neighbours or our spouses. And talking about our losses and the deep grief that we may feel, is important.

How to tell if your child is stressed and how best to support worried or bereaved children

Supporting bereaved children is difficult, especially when you are going through your own grief. Children feel especially unsettled when they lose someone close to them or in fear of losing someone. They may be confused, fearful or sad. They show their grief in various ways, depending on their age or stage of development.

Little children may become more clingy or needy than usual. They may cry, become more tearful or have tantrums more frequently. Some children may find it difficult to fall asleep or don’t sleep well. You may notice a change in appetite, with usually good eaters losing their appetite.

School going children may become more fearful, generally unsettled and show increased “bad” behaviours. They may also become sad, confused or angry, ask many questions and play less.

Older children may become withdrawn, spending a lot of time alone, they may “act out” more and become angry more easily.

Talk

Children overhear when adults talk about scary news and deaths due to coronavirus or when they listen to news. They often make up their own ideas especially when they don’t fully understand. It’s important to talk to them and ask about their fears. Talks need to be honest and open but age appropriate. It may help to not talk too much in front of them or show them all the messages or news that you receive and balance that with other positive age-appropriate things like play, doing exercise and spending fun time together.

If someone close to you becomes ill, be honest. Tell them the truth and answer their questions in a truthful manner. Explain that people can die from Covid-19 but most people only get a bit sick and get better. Help them with practical tips to help lessen their own anxieties, for example, explain that they can carry on washing their hands and wearing masks.

Routines

It may seem difficult but try to have a routine in the house. Even if it is only in the morning and for sleep time. Children are easier to handle when they have a regular routine. This can include a daily wake-up time, daily time to help around the house, daily time to read a book or play together, eating times, or time for some exercise. Keeping their sleep time the same every night also helps.

Find your own support

When people are together in one small space for a long time, stress can increase and people can express their emotions in various ways, including being hurtful. Children will pick up on stress and also become difficult.

If you are struggling, try to get support for yourself. Children and young people are quick to pick up on the distress of others around them, even if the adults are trying to hide their feelings.

Schedule time for relaxation and fun

Since we are all spending more time at home, this is an ideal time to schedule some quality family time.

Spending mealtime together can be a chance to connect and catch up. Even if it is just once a week, plan a fun meal and have everyone join in to help with the preparation.

Plan a family hike. Cape Town has hundreds of wonderful hiking trails for every level of fitness. Exercise is an excellent mood booster and being in nature can be very restoring.

Plan a family board game evening, or movie night with popcorn. Perhaps plan on some activities you would like to do when the impact of the Covid pandemic lessens.

Above all, remember to be patient and kind to yourself. We are living through unprecedented times and we need to be compassionate towards ourselves and others.

For more information, go to paedspal.org.za