Mental health of one in five Australian children impacted by pandemic 

13 October 2020

Nearly one in five Australian children experienced disruptive behaviours, disturbed sleep or symptoms of anxiety or depression amid the pandemic restrictions, according to the first national survey of the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on young children.

Children’s Health Queensland’s COVID-19 Unmasked (Young Children) study also found that up to 10 per cent of children may need specialised mental health support to help them recover from their experiences of the pandemic to date.

One in five parents who participated in the first round of the study also struggled with moderate to severe anxiety, depression or stress symptoms during the same period.

Lead researcher Dr Alex De Young, of the Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Service, said COVID-19 Unmasked (Young Children) was the first study of its kind to focus on the mental health needs of very young children during the pandemic.

“Babies and young children have been affected in many ways by the pandemic, but we find the mental health needs of this group are often forgotten,” Dr De Young said.

“The good news is that 80 per cent of Australian children aged 1 to 5 years are doing well. They’re adapting to change, showing positive mental health, and meeting their developmental milestones.

“Young children are resilient, and most families are doing a great job of doing their best to protect and care for them.

“Around 20 per cent of children have experienced confusion, worry and unhelpful thoughts and behaviours related to COVID-19, but with support from parents and other caring adults, most of these problems are likely to settle over time.”

Dr De Young said children would cope best with the pandemic if they had warm and responsive parents or caregivers, a set daily routine, and age-appropriate discussions about the pandemic and what it meant for them.

“Limit children’s exposure to media,’ Dr De Young advises, “but don’t avoid talking about the pandemic altogether. 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.’

Dr De Young said between five and 10 per cent of babies and young children would benefit from specialist mental health support.

“Families who have experienced other traumatic events, such as the bushfires earlier this year, or other natural disasters, or those who don’t have much social support, are more likely to struggle with the ongoing pandemic,” Dr De Young said.

“If your child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours are affecting their relationships and interfering with daily life, it’s a good idea to seek professional advice,’ Dr De Young says.

The survey has also provided valuable insights into the lived experience of young children at the time of first survey in May. One parent reported their three-year-old son was playing cars and one of the vehicles was an “ambulance taking all the dead people to hospital because of the virus”.

Another parent of a four-year-old girl said her teddies and dolls were in trouble for not washing their hands properly or coughing into their elbow: “The toys can’t go to kindy because it has coronavirus.”

About 77 per cent of children were impacted by not seeing their friends and family, 58 per cent by a change in routine, 57 per cent by missing important events and 11 per cent by financial hardship.

The Australian COVID-19 Unmasked (Young Children) researchers are leading an international collaboration involving the US, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Scotland, Turkey and Greece.

Dr De Young said results would be compared over time and around the world: “With Australia faring quite well compared to many overseas countries, it will be interesting to find out how COVID-19 has affected young children in other countries,” she said.

The 12-month study is being conducted in conjunction with The University of Queensland, Griffith University, The University of Melbourne and the University of Southern Queensland.

The initial online COVID-19 Unmasked survey attracted almost 1,000 responses from across Australia, with almost half the respondents from Queensland.

Australian families are invited to join the survey at any time.  The second round of the survey is now open.

The third and fourth rounds of the survey will be conducted in November and December 2020 and May, June and July 2021.

For more about the survey and to participate, visit  childrens.health.qld.gov.au/covid-19-unmasked.

ENDS

Media contact: t: +61 7 3068 5111 e: chqnews@health.qld.gov.au