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Parenting in a pandemic: Priory experts have answers to five common parenting challenges in a second lockdown

Priory consultants say they have seen a marked increase in depression in young people during the pandemic.

“I’ve almost stopped asking my normal question of ‘is there anything you are looking forward to at the moment?’" says Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg, a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford. “I just get a long list of things people would have been doing if it wasn't for Covid-19, such as concerts, parties, family gatherings and holidays.”

Missing out on these normal life experiences can have serious consequences for young people’s mental health.

Although schools remain open, the level of interaction pupils enjoyed previously both with their friends at school, and extended family members outside school, is no longer possible. Dr Hamilton McBrien, a Child and Adolescent Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital, Roehampton, warns this new environment is “a source of anxiety for many children, and alarming to some”.

Many are being taught in uncomfortably cold classrooms with doors and windows open to ensure ventilation. Afterschool activities are restricted, uncertainty about whether GCSEs will actually go ahead in 2021 is mounting, and social gatherings are off the table.

Teenagers in particular can struggle with lockdown, because they are at a “developmentally critical” stage of their lives. It is the time when they are supposed to be “building confidence and autonomy”, as well as studying hard, he said.

Mitigating all these pressures can be a real challenge for parents, so how can they best support their child? Experts say it is about doing the best with what you have:

How can I talk to my children? They seem so frustrated and fed up all the time

Think about the language and conversations in the family home”, says Dr Van Zwanenberg. There is no doubt that people can become irritable if they are trapped in the same space for prolonged periods. Children can say hurtful things they do not mean out of frustration. Dr Van Zwanenberg recommends “having a family rule that things should not be said unless they are true, kind, and necessary”, to remind everyone of the need to get through this together.

Dr McBrien agrees; “Don’t rush to dismiss them, but take time to listen and understand what your child is thinking and why.” The key is to empathise, so that they know they are not the only person who is struggling. By talking through the concerns you share, your child can learn from you about controlling and managing anxiety, say the experts.

How do I stop my child’s anxieties?

Along with the requirement to stay at home, there are lots of other steps the government and society as a whole are taking to reduce the spread of Covid-19. If discussed properly, these can be used to reassure your child and ease their concerns. “Let them see that they have control over their own and others’ safety,” says Dr McBrien. “Help them to identify what you are all doing to stay safe, such as social distancing, washing your hands frequently, and wearing facemasks.”

It is still possible to visit parks and open spaces with your child. They may feel worried about doing this, but exercise and a change of scenery is highly recommended. Dr McBrien says taking a “graded approach” to these visits is the best way to put your child’s worries to rest. “Opt for quiet open spaces initially, away from where there might be larger gatherings and busier high streets,” he says. More ambitious trips can take place later on, once your child is more comfortable. Remember that under the new rules, some parent and child groups can continue with up to 15 participants.

How can I make my child feel happier?

During lockdown, it is all too easy to slip into a routine of inactivity, with each day much like the last. This won’t help anyone’s mental health, and will be especially painful for children. Dr Van Zwanenberg says a way around this is to “put in place a small pleasure for everyone, every day”. This doesn’t have to be something which costs money, and ideally the activity should involve both of you, for example having your child cook the dinner instead of you. The point of this type of activity is that “the person giving and the person receiving feel good”. According to Dr Van Zwanenberg, “small changes like this can make a big difference to otherwise routine days”.

How can I get my child off their phone and social media?

Even without the pressures of the pandemic, parents are often right to be concerned about their children’s use of social media and smartphones. Dr McBrien says it is important to manage this, but “without being overly draconian”.

It is not just children who are spending more time on their devices. “Leading by example is often more effective”, advises Dr McBrien. Make sure that you limit the time you spend online, and that your children see you do this. Dr McBrien suggests that a digital detox “could be part of your family’s daily routine”.

An unfortunate feature of the pandemic has been the spread of misinformation about the virus online. Be sure to educate yourself about the facts, using reputable sources, and make sure your children know “that they should not believe all that they read”, he adds.

I think my child is suffering from depression. What do I do?

These are tough times, no matter how hard we work to maintain our mental health. Dr Van Zwanenberg has seen a “marked increase in depression” amongst children and teenagers since the beginning of the pandemic. She says that parents should watch for signs that their children are developing depression. These signs could include “isolating themselves from friends”. This could take the form of “declining online events” with their peers, which would be “unusual” in a well and happy teenager. Another sign could be that the young person hardly notices the small happy events that others take pleasure from, such as being brought a surprise after school. If a parent does spot these warning signs, they can seek help for depression from their GP or a provider such as Priory, with help available online if necessary.

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