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Making sense of coronavirus and how to talk to children about the prolonged lockdown

  • Every child in the country has seen their life disrupted by coronavirus

  • Leading psychiatrist says children feel anxious if they don’t see their parents “following the rules”

  • Charity helplines report sharp increase in calls from young people worried about the virus

  • Feeling anxious or overwhelmed is completely understandable at a time like this, especially if a child is struggling with mental health or concerned about someone with a physical illness, but there are lots of resources out there, says Priory expert

Panic and anxiety can be contagious and there are growing fears that the current COVID-19 crisis could lead to an increase in mental health conditions, in children and adolescents, as well as adults. And, despite the resilience that many young people are displaying as they see so many familiar aspects of their lives, such as clubs, meeting up with friends and going to school, halted indefinitely, Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford, explains that for some children, it’s the uncertainty of the situation that will be hard to handle.

“As you would expect, many people, of all ages, are finding their anxiety levels significantly raised at the moment. However, with constant, rolling news reporting on so many concerning angles and so many unknowns and changes to people’s lifestyle, it’s no wonder that young people – from little ones through to teens – are struggling to manage their worries and reaching out to their parents and carers to help them navigate these unprecedented times.

“This is a global emergency, and no-one is immune to feeling anxious whether its worrying about elderly relatives, financial issues or juggling work and childcare. But it is important that, where possible, parents can try to manage their own anxiety and strive to talk about concerns away from the earshot of children. When young people see others being anxious themselves, they will mirror the anxiety and worries of their parents. They look to their parents and family for safety and security so if those adult family members are not managing to contain this, it will unfortunately have a negative impact, which can be significant for some.

“Additionally, families should ensure they are following national advice and guidance on behaviour during the pandemic from social distancing to regular handwashing. Children will be more aware of these public health messages than parents probably realise, and they will worry more if they feel this guidance is not being followed.

Dr van Zwanenberg outlines seven simple steps to help parents identify when their children are becoming overwhelmed and how to help;

  1. Children need basic facts that lead them to feel safe and stay safe. As parents, we don't normally present young children with figures about how many children get hit crossing the road or about how many might get abducted. Instead, we talk to them sensibly about safety, such as look left and right and listen before crossing a road, and do not go off with strangers. We need to use the same approach regarding coronavirus. Keep it simple and pragmatic, for example, wash your hands well and regularly. Encourage them to sing along to a favourite song to help illustrate the duration and how thorough the hand washing should be

  2. Make the current situation regarding staying at home fulfilling for them. Discuss all the things you can do as a family such as playing board games and learning new skills. Could your child teach you some football tips or help you to get to grips with a computer game? Try to set some time aside to teach your child to cook – and not to worry about the mess. Work with them to compile a list of things to do together and follow them through

  3. If you find they are asking for reassurance for worries too frequently, talk to them about how focusing on worries can make their worries grow, and how ignoring them can make them shrink. It is like a plant, if you feed and water it and give it lots of attention it grows, if you ignore it, it withers and dies. Make a poster with them of all the things they can do to distract themselves from their worries. For very young children, it can be something simple like naming everything in the room or counting back from a high number in threes. These activities fill the mind so they cannot think of other things and can help them get off the ‘worry train’ that is likely going round in circles. Alternatively, they might be able to change their mood and thoughts by engaging in a fun activity such as watching funny clips on YouTube. Childline has lots of helpful advice about dealing with anxiety and the Children’s Society also, with help for those suffering from depression, phobia, loneliness, OCD and some very practical resources.

  4. If worries continue to be an issue, suggest that they only have 10 minutes of worry time a day; set a time for this towards the end of the day but not too near to bedtime. In the 10 minutes, they can tell you all their worries. You may find that if they have spotted worries during the day but ignored them because it was not worry time, they might have forgotten them by now. If some worries still exist, write them down, write evidence on the same piece of paper as to why they do not need to worry and have them put the worries away in a box as they are now dealt with

  5. If you feel it’s appropriate and they are mature and old enough to engage and listen, there are some really helpful apps for young people with anxiety such as Headspace and Pacifica

  6. It is ok to normalise some worries. If the young person has understandable worries that are not excessive or impacting on daily functioning, it is ok to say "I understand why you are worrying about that, I think lots of people would feel the same as you do". A validating comment such as that can be very helpful in reassuring the young person that it is OK to have worrying feelings. In fact, it’s normal.

  7. If you continue to sense that a young person is feeling unable to function due to extensive worries despite the above tips, it might be worth consulting a GP on the phone. Anxiety disorders are very treatable, especially if caught early – and remember these are exceptional circumstances that many parents are finding difficult to navigate. You are not alone




Notes to editors

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About Priory Group

The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.

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