How to help children and young people adjust to the ‘new normal’

The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic might be behind us, but for some children and young people, adapting to COVID-normal life may be hard. Here’s what you can do to help them cope.

Last year, the global pandemic affected everyone’s life in some way. But for many school-aged kids and young people, it was particularly disruptive, causing school shutdowns, the cancellation of milestone events and taking catch-ups with friends and family off the table.

If you worried about how that would affect your kids moving forward, you’re in good company.

This report published by the Australian Childhood Foundation in September 2020 found that almost a third of parents were concerned that the effects of COVID-19 would have lasting mental health impacts on their children, such as heightened anxiety and stress.

“Some children may still be experiencing COVID-related anxiety,” says Kirrilie Smout, a clinical psychologist specialising in the mental health of children and adolescents.

“This may stem from disappointment and sadness about what they might have lost – like a significant event such as a graduation – or anxiety about what new threats they may have to manage. Ongoing stress around their family’s financial situation as a result of COVID can also contribute.”

How to look for warning signs

According to Smout, some groups of children may be more at risk of experiencing anxiety due to the pandemic than others.

“Kids who were dealing with mental health concerns prior to the pandemic, those whose parents have been more negatively affected in an ongoing way, and children who had a bigger disruption to their lives, like a longer lockdown period, may be more likely to experience COVID-related anxiety, even now,” she says.

As for warning signs, Smout stresses that it varies considerably between different individuals.

“So, instead of a checklist of specific things to look out for, it’s important for parents to continue spending time and noticing how their children are acting and feeling, and to spot if there are any significant changes.”

If you’re worried, ask other people who are close to your children like grandparents or teachers if they’ve noticed any changes.

“Sometimes kids will talk to other adults in their life about things that they don’t always bring up with their parents,” says Smout.

Smout suggests acting on any concerns or changes in behaviour that stay around for more than a few days.

“Whether that’s noticing that your child’s moods are more up and down. Or perhaps they seem withdrawn or teary. Again, it’s less about specific signs and more about noticing things that are different or have changed for your child.”

You may find this article about how to recognise anxiety in your child helpful.

What you can do to support your children

This will differ depending on whether your child is five, 10 or 15, but Smout says, regardless of age, the following core principles remain the same.

Ask questions

The more you know about what’s worrying your child, the more you can support them.

“Asking questions can help you understand what they’re really dealing with rather than making assumptions,” she says.

For example, if a COVID outbreak means your child’s school might be at risk of closing as part of a snap lockdown and you’ve noticed a change in their behaviour, you could ask “What are you most worried about if that happens?” or “What would be the hardest thing about that for you?”

“Questions are useful for more than information-gathering,” says Smout.

“They’re also a way to show care and to help your children understand and manage their emotions, regardless of their age.”

She says a good rule of thumb is to ask three questions before making a statement of your own.

“And if you get ‘I don’t know’ responses to your questions, which is to be expected, particularly when children are younger, you could say, ‘My guess is you’re worried you might miss your swimming carnival or, ‘I know you felt bored and lonely the last time we had to home school and I think you might be worried it’ll happen again.’

“Asking ‘How can I help make that better?’ or ‘What would help you come up with a plan to deal with that?’ can help turn this into an opportunity as a parent to help your child develop their problem-solving skills.

“Keep in mind though that older children and teenagers are entitled to their privacy, so make sure your questions aren’t too intrusive,” adds Smout.

Provide care, affection and encouragement

“A warm, supportive relationship between parent and child is one of the best ways to support good mental health in children,” says Smout.

“So, keep providing warmth, care, affection, open conversation and quality time together.”

You can also encourage your children to be open about any COVID-related things or situations that are still worrying them.

“Ongoing avoidance of things they’re afraid of usually makes anxiety worse, so encourage them to slowly do the things that scare them,” says Smout.

Encourage healthy behaviours

This can start with helping your kids stay connected to their peers.

“Children and teens who have good friendships tend to have better mental health than those who don’t. So, as well as encouraging exercise, good nutrition and getting enough quality sleep, it’s important to keep nurturing friendship opportunities and helping your child develop good interpersonal skills.”

Additional resources

This article provides advice for parents on how to alleviate fear and worry in children, and find out how to support an anxious child here.

ReachOut has a selection of resources to help young people (age 14 to 25) deal with change.

Find out how mindfulness can help support your child’s wellbeing here.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is dominating news headlines far less this year than last, your kids may still struggle to digest what they see and hear around them.

This article gives advice on how to talk to children about scary stuff in the news, while this article provides tips on how to spot changes in behaviour in your child as a result of watching a scary or traumatic news event.

This content is proudly funded by one of Beyond Blue’s Major Partners, Future Generation Global Investment Company.

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