One in four Australian preschoolers still feeling anxious about COVID-19

5 April 2021

One in four young Australian children (1-5 years) are still experiencing higher than average levels of anxiety while learning to live in our new ‘COVID-normal’, the latest findings of a national survey of the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has found.

Children who experienced a second extended lockdown, particularly those in Victoria, are particularly vulnerable, with the second round of Children’s Health Queensland’s COVID-19 Unmasked (Young Children) study finding a significant increase in anxiety, depression and attachment-seeking behaviours among this group.

Similarly, mental health difficulties for parents who experienced a second lockdown have also increased markedly since the first survey in May, June and July last year.

Lead researcher Dr Alex De Young, of Children’s Health Queensland’s Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health, said even though Australia’s experience of COVID-19 had been much less severe than in other countries, some children and parents were still experiencing anxiety and stress related to the ongoing threat, uncertainty and unpredictable nature of life during a pandemic.

“More than 370 families completed the second survey in October and November­, around the time we had the second wave in Australia. This enabled us to compare the group of families who experienced the second lockdown in Victoria with families living in the rest of Australia, as well as look at changes in mental health since the first survey.”

“One in four children were still experiencing higher than average levels of anxiety symptoms, such as being fearful, worried or tense,” Dr De Young said. “Fortunately, the occurrence of these symptoms had not increased significantly since the first survey for the children who have not experienced a second lockdown.”

“However, children and parents who experienced a second lockdown, including enforced home confinement, travel restrictions and mandatory mask wearing, have struggled with their mental health.

“Up to 12% of children who went through a second lockdown experienced very high levels of mental health difficulties. Anxiety was most common and there was a marked increase in depression symptoms and attachment seeking behaviours, such as increases clinginess and needing a lot of attention.”

“At least 23% of parents in the second lockdown group also reported moderate to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety, and 44% experienced moderate to severe levels of stress.

“In comparison, 15 to 19% of the parents who did not experience a second lockdown reported experiencing depression, anxiety and/or stress symptoms in the moderate to severe range.”

“Overall, children and parents are showing resilience and good mental health and wellbeing, but these latest findings highlight the importance of monitoring for signs of anxiety and stress in very young children and providing parents with access to resources to support mental health and parenting during this time of continued uncertainty,” Dr De Young said.

Some signs to look out for include increased sadness, not enjoying fun activities, separation anxiety, going backwards in previously developed skills, not wanting to leave the house and frequent worries about getting sick or dying from COVID-19.

“While these difficulties are likely to be temporary for most, some children and parents may require higher levels of psychological support. This is especially the case for families living in Victoria.”

Dr De Young said children coped best if parents can provide a warm, responsive and supportive environment, a set daily routine, and age-appropriate discussions about the pandemic and what it meant for them.

“If your child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours persist over time, and are affecting their relationships and interfering with daily life, it’s a good idea to seek professional advice,” Dr De Young says. ‘Talk with your doctor or child health nurse.’

Learn more about the survey, and its findings so far, at our COVID-19 Unmasked website.


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About the survey

COVID-19 Unmasked (Young Children) is the first study of its kind to focus on the mental health needs of very young children during the pandemic.

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

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 completed between May to July 2020 attracted almost 1,000 responses from across Australia. The second survey was completed between August and November 2020.  To date, 1035 families have taken part.

A third round of the survey was completed between November 2020 and February 2021, and the fourth and final round of the survey will take place from May to July 2021.