With the outbreak of COVID-19 everyday life has changed suddenly and dramatically for children and their caregivers.They are confronted with major adjustments to their children’s school and home routines with the advent of closures of schools and some childcare centres.Many families are coping with the cessation of their children’s usual curricular and extracurricular activities, and the social distancing measures have affected the structure and predictability children and parents are accustomed to.

Children are observant of what is happening around them and can easily tune into the stresses that parents are under economically and emotionally.

For some parents, closure of businesses, loss of employment, reduced income, and uncertainty about how to provide for their children can be overwhelming.

For many families there is the increased challenge of accessing digital technologies to support children’s learning and parents’ work commitments during this time.In the current environment of uncertainty, children are likely to worry about the health and safety of their parents and significant others and these feelings of worry, fear and uncertainty may surface.  Changes in their behaviour may also emerge as a reaction to the stress and turmoil they experience. Opening up conversational pathways to help them express their fears and concerns is important.

Besides focusing on children’s physical health and safety during this pandemic it is important to focus on their emotional health and wellbeing and encourage and support their resilience to adversity.There are a number of helpful strategies to enhance their wellbeing.

As a first step, children need information.This requires parents and caregivers to provide information in an appropriate child friendly way and be available to respond to questions, and tune into children’s anxieties and uncertainties.Children are exposed to information overload from media coverage and adult and peer conversations which can exacerbate their stress. Limiting such exposure might help to prevent escalating anxiety.

Keeping children connected in a context of social and spatial distancing

At a time when children are separated from peers and significant adults such as teachers and grandparents, creative approaches may be needed to keep children connected with their friendship networks.This could occur in many formats including online group meetings, such as Zoom, Google Meets, email and Skype.With the curtailment of regular play dates, sleeping over with friends and visiting or being looked after grandparents, children may feel isolated, frustrated and angry about the loss of their normal.There are other losses for them as well such as the social connections that come from being part of  sporting teams, having leadership roles in school, and other cultural and school activities.Ensuring connectedness in creative and meaningful ways is important to building their resilience.Making time for them and letting them know they are loved and being flexible in expectations is crucial. The well-being of parents / caregivers is also integral to children’s wellbeing.Hence it is important parents have access to the social and economic supports in order to have the internal and material resources to care for their children.          

Responding sensitively to differing needs

Each child may be impacted differently by stressful events and respond in unique ways.Some children may seek extra attention, have difficulties in their eating and sleeping patterns and some may show altered or challenging behaviours (increased aggression, regressive behaviours and nightmares).Children will benefit from a consistent, empathic and sensitive response from supportive parents / caregivers.

Adults can help by reassuring children about their safety and the safety of loved ones.Maintaining routines for meals, bedtimes, and schedules for learning and play will give children a sense of structure and predictability.Adults can also manage children’s reactions by validating their feelings and encouraging them to ask questions and talk about their concerns.An especially helpful strategy is to help them increase their sense of agency and self-efficacy, an important skill in times of uncertainty.They can be encouraged into activities to self-regulate and feel in control by playing an active role in taking responsibility for themselves.For example, following guidance on washing hands and hygiene, physical exercise and other restorative activities or undertaking simple chores that help them feel engaged and participating.  Children should be invited to share their ideas about how the family can help them and how they would like to do things.All of these strategies can reinforce their sense of agency and being in control.

Children can be remarkably resilient, and we should try to provide them with the strategies to ‘bounce back’ in times of adversity and uncertainty.In these challenging times children will look to adults for comfort and guidance.

Children are more likely to thrive and move forward when they feel supported by parents, siblings and significant others.Their optimism must be embraced, and their concerns should be validated emphasising their strengths and positivity.With a strong, reciprocal partnership between older and younger generations, we will emerge as a stronger and more united community.Elizabeth Fernandez is a Professor of Social Work at the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UNSW Sydney.

Elizabeth Fernandez