4 August 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we knew it. And the changes keep coming as we all learn to live in the ‘new normal’ of outbreaks, social restrictions, COVID testing and vaccination. While we’re all busy adulting and dealing with the challenges COVID-19 has thrown at us, it’s important not to overlook the impact all this upheaval and uncertainty has had on the youngest members of our society.

According to COVID-19 Unmasked (Young Children), an Australian survey examining the mental health impacts of the pandemic on one to five-year-olds, nearly 20% of children experienced disruptive behaviours, disturbed sleep or symptoms of anxiety or depression when social restrictions and lockdowns were in place.

“Young children have been affected in many ways by the pandemic, but the mental health needs of this group are often forgotten,” says lead researcher Dr Alex De Young, of the Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Service.

“It’s important to remember that anything that creates significant stress for a family, can make babies and young children feel unsafe and unsettled, as well as have a long-term impact on their emotional and mental wellbeing.”

“The good news is around 80% of young children and babies are very resilient, and most will bounce back from the pandemic experience with the right support from their parents and other caring adults. In most cases, the issues commonly experienced such as disturbed sleep and anxiety should settle over time without any long-term effects.”

However, just like we can’t be complacent about washing our hands and following social distancing guidelines right now, it’s important that we keep an eye out for signs that our little ones might need some extra support and reassurance.

Signs your child may not be coping

Babies and young children can’t always tell you if something is worrying them, but they do communicate distress through a range of behaviours. It’s important to watch them closely and keep an eye out for the following signs.

  • Sadness and/or withdrawing from family and friends
    If you notice your child seems a bit down or not their usual self when it comes to play and socialising, it might be a sign that they’re a bit overwhelmed with everything that’s going on around them.
  • Increased clinginess or separation anxiety
    Do they need to be physically near you more often? Is saying goodbye at preschool, day-care drop-off distressing your child, when it normally isn’t an issue?
  • Going backwards in their development and skills
    Some children revert to ‘baby talk’, thumb sucking or may be wetting their pants or the bed again when they feel unsafe.
  • Changes to eating habits
    Some children might eat more or much less when they are distressed.
  • Sleeping problems
    Is your child resisting going to bed more than they usually would, waking several times during the night, or having new or increased nightmares?
  • Emotional outbursts or temper tantrums.
    Although these are normal for many young children, having more frequent or severe outbursts could be a sign of stress.
  • New or increased fears or worries.
    Is your child saying things that might be a sign they are worried about the coronavirus or things happening for the family? Are they more fearful or avoidant of things? Do they need to wash their hands more often than is needed? Are they fearful of leaving the house?

COVID-19 Unmasked found many young children were thinking, playing, talking and worrying about COVID-19 related issues and germs. One three-year-old girl drew animals and buildings with germs all over them, while another five-year-old boy was worried his nana and grandad would get sick and die. The survey also found that young children who were confused or misunderstood COVID-19 and social distancing restrictions, were often reported to have higher levels of emotional or behavioural difficulties.

Children at higher risk

The research also indicated that young children who have previously experienced major disruptive events in their lives, such as serious illness or injury, the separation or loss of a caregiver or a natural disaster, such as bushfires, floods and cyclones, are likely to feel the impact of COVID-19 more than others.  Children who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, have a disability or chronic health condition, and/or a parent with mental health difficulties, are more likely to experience higher levels of emotional or behavioural difficulties. These children especially, may benefit from more specialised and culturally sensitive mental health services.

How to be ‘COVID-safe’ with your child’s mental health

  1. Be calm, understanding and supportive
    If you notice your child is reacting to things more than usual, or what might be typical for their age, or with more intensity, try to respond calmly, with warmth and understanding. Through supportive and caring relationships, babies and young children are able to process and understand disruptive and stressful events and manage intense feelings.
  2. Talk honestly and openly
    Like adults, many children are upset about having their world disrupted. They may have misunderstandings or worries. It’s important to help them express their feelings and reassure them about the future and the things that adults are doing to keep them safe. Focus on facts and simple explanations in a way they can understand. Drawing, playing or reading storybooks about the stressful event, such as Birdie and the Virus, is a really helpful way to connect with your child and help them to express feelings and understand and process what is happening in an age appropriate way.
  3. Maintain routines
    Routine and familiarity help a child feel safe and secure in their world. (It is also helpful for adults!) Try to maintain usual daily routines as much as possible and set clear boundaries for your child and family. If usual daily life is not possible, try to create new routines so there is some structure, predictability and certainty.
  4. Minimise exposure to media and adult conversations
    Limit children’s exposure to media and news reports as much as possible, but don’t avoid talking about the pandemic altogether. Your child will most likely have seen people wearing face masks, for example, so it’s important to explain to them what they have seen in an age-appropriate way. It’s important however to have ‘adult’ conversations out of earshot of young children, as they will pick up on details they don’t need to know about. If you sound worried, they will worry, too!
  5. Be active outside
    It’s widely known that spending time outside and being active, even for just a walk around the neighbourhood, or a game in the yard, is good for mental health and wellbeing. The COVID-19 Unmasked survey findings backed this, with parents saying that children who were able to do things out of their home were happier during the lockdowns and restrictions.

Remember to look after yourself, too!

It’s vital that parents and caregivers take care of their own mental health and wellbeing and seek help when needed. This is important for your own health and wellbeing, but also for your family as well.

Dr De Young says the best predictor of recovery for children is the wellbeing and functioning of the caregiver.

“We know young children’s sense of safety comes from their relationships,” she says.

“This is how they learn to manage their feelings and cope with stresses. Parents often don’t realise how valuable they are in this way, and how important their role is in helping their child’s resilience during and after major events.”

It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live or how you’re feeling – taking a few moments for yourself each day will help you be a happier and more resilient you.  Visit the Dear Mind website for some simple ideas on how you can boost your mental health and resilience every day.

When to seek help

You know your child better than anyone. If you have any concerns about their feelings or behaviour, especially if they are affecting their relationships or their daily life, don’t hesitate to seek help from an appropriate health professional.

Your family doctor or a child health nurse can help with more information or advice.

For more information