How The Covid-19 Pandemic Has Affected Children’s Mental Health

01 Jun How The Covid-19 Pandemic Has Affected Children’s Mental Health

The beginning of the covid-19 pandemic in December 2019 sparked worldwide fear and panic, as more and more countries started to experience the spread of the coronavirus amongst their populations. In South Africa confirmed covid-19 cases were announced in March 2020 and the nation subsequently went into hard lockdown at the end of the same month. Overnight we experienced restrictions in travel, working conditions, schooling and retail. The President announced that schools would be closed and children needed to stay safe until further notice. While adults themselves found this sudden change challenging to adapt to, children have also struggled with the abrupt change to their day-to-day life. Suddenly they couldn’t see their teachers and friends, they had to stop all other activities they were involved in, and were also restricted in terms of seeing family and other relatives.

Throughout 2020 there was a lot of uncertainty regarding returning to “normal” and children found themselves either adapting to learning at home, online learning and returning to the school environment with very different measures in place to ensure their safety. Children’s mental health has inevitably been affected by the covid-19 pandemic, but many of them have also been able to adapt to the “new normal”. Many parents and caregivers found that children displayed behaviours such as:

  • Increased levels of anxiety and clinginess (e.g. wanting to be with parents all the time)
  • Being worried and fearful of getting sick or someone they know falling ill
  • Overwhelming emotions such as anger and irritability (e.g. outbursts)
  • Changes in their sleeping and eating habits (e.g. not sleeping or eating well)
  • Feeling sad or lonely
  • Becoming withdrawn or quiet
  • Increased aggressiveness (e.g. fighting more with a sibling or other children)
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy doing
  • Regression in things they had achieved (e.g. being scared to sleep alone or wetting the bed)

These are normal reactions to what can only be described as “abnormal circumstances” – our current generations have not been through a pandemic of this magnitude before. It has taken some time but slowly we have adjusted to a new way of life. It is however important to prioritise our mental health and that of the children in our care. We can do this by:

  • Speaking to them about covid-19 and how it makes them feel – get a sense of what they know and understand about it
  • Giving them context about how covid-19 affects children compared to adults (i.e. children seem to manage with it much better and get less ill than adults do)
  • Focusing on the positives – reassure them of all the measures which we take to keep safe and healthy
  • Empathising and validating their thoughts and feelings, even the ones which are difficult
  • Allowing them to ask questions and speak about loss, in the case of the loss of a loved one
  • Encouraging them to engage in activities they will enjoy – get them to be creative and have fun
  • Continuing with routine, structure, and consistency – this provides a sense of safety
  • Helping them stay in touch with grandparents, relatives and friends through virtual platforms

It is also as important for adults to take care of themselves and their mental health as children often pick up on their feelings of stress and anxiety. Adults need to ensure that they keep safe, that they stay in touch and connect with their support network, and they also do things which nurture their well-being. Even though it is now over a year since we experienced the first wave of covid-19 infections, it is just as important to take care of ourselves and our loved ones.

Written by – Reabetsoe Buys – Counselling Psychologist at The Tomorrow Trust

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