Coronavirus and kids: Consultant Clinical Psychologist Answers Your Questions

Coronavirus and kids: Consultant Clinical Psychologist Answers Your Questions

These are crazy times we’re living in. Most of us have never experienced anything like it and, if we’re lucky, we never will again. But since Coronavirus reared its ugly head earlier this year, our families have been through a lot. You might have noticed unusual behaviour in your children. You might be wondering how to answer certain questions. Perhaps you have concerns about how this might all affect your children long-term. When it comes to Coronavirus and kids, we have a lot of questions. Thankfully, I am lucky enough to know someone who can give us some answers.

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Dr Sarah Mundy is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Director at Amicus Psychology. Dr Mundy specialises in working with children and families, primarily those who have experienced early adversity. On top of this, Dr Mundy has written a series of children’s books titled Parenting Through Stories, written from an attachment and story-telling approach.

You can read a review of her first Parenting Through Stories book here, where she tackles separation anxiety in toddlers.

Dr Sarah Mundy

Dr Mundy has an insight into how kids’ minds work, which will help us understand how Coronavirus, social isolation and everything that comes with it, might impact them. She achieved her doctorate from University College London and is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). While there are a lot of parenting books out there that might help us better understand our children and their thought processes, there’s nothing better than having a professional at hand to walk us through these peculiar and trying times.

I recently asked you if there were any questions that you would like me to ask Dr Mundy on the topic of Coronavirus and kids and she has been kind enough to oblige. If you have anything else you’re eager to ask her, Dr Mundy is active on social media, including Instagram and Twitter, so stop by and say hi.

Since lockdown, my one-year-old has become really clingy. Is it the lack of social interaction? Is this something we need to help him work through or will it pass naturally, once things return to ‘normal’?

"Try to prise a limpet away from its rock and it will cling all the harder"— John Bowlby and Jeremy Holmes Click To Tweet

Whilst clinginess can be really frustrating to manage, particularly if your little one has been quite independent up until now, it is a sign that he needs you closer than normal. It can be hard to work out what this change in behaviour relates to.  Anxiety around separation from an attachment figure (you) is part of normal development, and is common in children between the ages of 6 months to three years.  It relates both to learning about object permanence — when you understand that things exist when they can’t be seen or heard — as well as an increased need for exploring the world, but then returning to your trusted adult when you need a bit of reassurance or things become too hard to manage on your own.  So, his changes in behaviour may relate, at least in part, to that normal developmental process.

However, the lockdown is playing havoc on children’s emotional wellbeing. They are seeing anxious adults, parents may be less available and they have experienced huge changes, including being restricted from seeing friends. Many of my clients are showing increased anxiety, which is manifesting in behaviours just like this and is resulting in wanting someone by their side that can help them feel more safe in an unpredictable and confusing world. I’d say it is absolutely normal for his age but also for the world situation we find ourselves in.

At the age of one, whilst social interaction is important, the key to a child's emotional development is their attachment figure — parents are still the most influential and important people in his life. Click To Tweet

It is not something I would worry about overly. It sounds like a normal adaptation to a difficult situation (and a sign that he trusts you to help him). Also, if you become very anxious about it then he is likely to pick up on it.  

There are a few things you can do to help him. Firstly, story it for him — help him understand why he is likely to be more clingy. Let him know that it is okay, and that you are there for him. He’s only little but he will understand some simple explanations. It is important to also help him non-verbally.

Be available to help soothe him physically, and think about how calm his environment is (calming music, massage, nice smells etc.). Think about your own anxiety and whether you have become more preoccupied or less available due to the lock down (we may be more present physically but sometimes more absent emotionally) and how you can ground yourself. You can’t stay by his side all the time so provide clear explanations about where you are going, letting him know that you will come back.

The key thing is to help him feel nurtured and comforted and to know that you are available. You could also think about how you can support him to have some social interaction with others despite social distancing. Not always easy with little ones (they don’t really get the concept of two metres!) but seeing others out and about, and possibly online can be helpful. I do think it will ease with the return to “normal” (although remember it is normal that he will still show some separation anxiety given his age) but it is worth not trying to push him back to being independent now, as this really is a sign that he needs you close.

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My toddler has started carrying around her blankie again. Is this something to be expected?

Just like the above response, this is likely to be another sign of how children need more comfort at the moment. With all the changes and anxiety around it sounds like she may be going back to previous ways of coping. It’s quite clever really that she knows she needs to feel calmer and has found a way to meet that need — something which adults can’t always do!

If you are worried about it, you can broaden her repertoire of things to help her feel calm (or at least have a spare blankie!) as well as help her understand why she might be back to using her blanket.  It’s so helpful for children to understand what their behaviours might be about and what feelings might be driving them. For example, you could say “I’ve noticed that you have got your blankie out again. You used to always use that when you were feeling a bit muddled or worried. I think all these changes and grown-ups talking about big and scary things might have made you feel a bit worried again. Do you feel better when you have your blankie? I think it helps your body calm down.”

Different children are managing the changes in different ways and using something that has previously helped her is both to be expected and shows a good little problem solver! You just have to work out how much of a problem it is for you (if at all) and how happy you are with her using it.

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When it comes to Coronavirus and kids, what are the anxiety warning signs to look out for in my child? When should I think about getting them professional help?

Children show anxiety in lots of different ways, including becoming irritable, having problems sleeping, regressing in behaviours (such as starting to wet the bed again or having general sleep regressions), having bad dreams, finding it hard to concentrate and so on. It depends upon the child’s age, how and what they show, and how we respond.  

All three of my children are experiencing anxiety in relation to the Coronavirus — I think most children will be.  In the first instance, our approach as parents is probably the most important thing to consider. Unless you are worried that your child is struggling massively or not accepting your attempts to support them then I am not sure getting professional help is the way forward, although you may want to have a consultation with a psychologist just to talk through your concerns and help you feel more confident in the way you are supporting your child.  

As a parent, it is important to let your child know that you have noticed their changes in behaviour, and wonder what these might relate to.  If they are too young, or not forthcoming in thinking about this with you, then you would want to make some curious suggestions. Curious in that you take a not-knowing stance — so instead of something like “Why did you get up so many times last night? You must be really worried”, you would want to say “I have noticed that you have been getting out of bed a lot. This seems like a new thing for you. I was wondering if you were feeling really worried about things … it would be quite normal to be worried when there is so much going on in the world.” (obviously this would need to be adapted for the age of the child).

It can be helpful for children to have support noticing how their body feels when they are worried, and giving them some ways to help them with this (breathing, yoga, relaxation). Some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Worksheets can be helpful for older children to connect their thoughts and feelings (probably for around ages seven plus).

How can I teach my child about Coronavirus through stories and play?

I would think about what you would like your child to know about the Coronavirus, and what the aim of the stories and play are. You might want them to understand what the virus is, and how to reduce risk around it, but also how it is making them feel and the changes that it has made to their lives. There are some great resources out there which you can have a look at. You can read stories to your child (e.g. Axel Sheffer’s book) but I would also create a story with your child. Whilst you can take the lead as an adult this will give you insight into how your child understands what is going on and give you a chance to take a more interactive approach.

My son (aged three) is bringing Coronavirus into his play a lot at the moment – showing that it is on his mind and that he is attempting to make sense of it. I try to join him with this, but let him go with his flow. Playing through things helps him understand what is going on, but you can introduce ideas and see where it takes you both.

How do adults handle lockdown differently to children?

I’m not sure it’s an easy question to answer! We all handle things differently, adults and children, based upon our experiences and coping strategies.  I suppose the difference for children is that they have less control over changes (although we all have little control at the moment) and may find it harder to make sense of what is happening.  

They also need more help in regulating their feelings — when we are adults we are more able to notice what we are feeling and find ways of managing it.  Children need help in understanding what they are feeling, making sense of it, and managing it. This works best in the context of a secure attachment relationship through co-regulation.

When talking to our kids about Coronavirus, should we underplay the severity of the situation or is honesty (to an extent!) the best policy?

I think honesty is always the best policy. Children are not stupid and they pick up on what is going on through noticing the emotional tone of the environment, even if we are not overtly sharing information. That in itself can be unsettling and confusing. If we are worried about things and not telling them why they can jump to their own conclusions — often children (who can be quite egocentric particularly when young) think the difficulties are something to do with them.

Not sharing information also suggests to children that we are hiding something or that it's not okay to talk about tricky things — certainly something we don't want them to learn in the future. Click To Tweet

However, your comment “to an extent” is hugely important.  It’s getting the balance between helping children understand that things are difficult in the world and people are worried, have had to make huge changes and we don’t have the answers yet to know when things will be back to normal.  You can be honest about this but I would also not expose them to too much media coverage or scary images.

I would always make sure you check your own feelings when talking to them, even if you are worried (it’s okay for them to see you worried if you show them that that’s normal and you can cope with it). Try to give the message that it is your job to keep them safe and that the changes are to protect people who are more likely to get very unwell if they get the Coronavirus (which is not children). Maybe reframing the changes as us being kind to others to help them not get ill adds a positive message, as well as saying that grown-ups are working hard to find a way to stop the virus spreading so things can get better as soon as possible. Let them know it’s okay to feel angry/worried/sad about the situation. 

For younger children, how should parents prepare their child for returning to a childcare setting, both emotionally and physically, when they have been so heavily dependent on their parents for so long? Is there anything they should do in advance?

I think we will need to prepare both our children and ourselves, for the return to childcare settings.  It has been an interesting experience having our children with us 24/7 — something which I have enjoyed immensely but also found really difficult at times. Given there is already an increase in anxiety I think it likely that going back to childcare will be very difficult for some children, particularly if some of the ways we help them with separation anxiety will not be allowed with social distancing measures.

Already our children are more confused and anxious than normal and they need to adapt (again) to another change.  Even if they are returning to the same setting things are likely to be very different for them. Click To Tweet

I would start with thinking about what questions you have as a parent, and what questions your child might have (even if they are very little they may be able to give you some indication of what they think it might be like). Try to find out as much as you can from their setting and help your child understand this (you can do this through play as well as conversation).

Consider how you will manage drop off, how you will help them remember you when they are there (they may not be allowed to bring something that reminds them of home, so drawing a little heart on their hand may be good). 

Think about getting into a routine pre and post childcare and starting with small separations from you. Let them know that they might feel worried and help them understand why and how this is normal. My interactive children’s book  Please Stay Here — I Want You Near explores just this — anxiety about being away from parents when going to a childcare setting. This may be helpful to read with them as it provides both a story of a little bear going to school and experiencing separation anxiety, but also contains prompter questions to help you explore what your children may be concerned about (it’s written for 2-4 year olds but older children can benefit from it too as a platform to talk about their feelings). 

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Should I be encouraging social distancing measures in my child when they go back to school? Or should I accept it’s not likely and let them have fun and play?

I think it will be impossible as parents to have a large influence on how children manage social distancing at school. Our role is to ensure they are aware of the need for regular hand washing, etc. Social distancing measures will really need to be up to the school setting who will be following government guidelines.  What I would be sure I did as a parent is check in with my child what was happening and communicate closely with school about how they are managing social distancing. 

There is obviously a balance between risk to physical health and to longer-term emotional wellbeing. We need to think about this in terms of children interacting with each other. I have decided to send my children in a couple of days a week and see how the changes impact them. Again it’s a balance of their need to socialise and learn (my homeschooling is not really up to scratch!) but also feel safe and not exposed to high levels of anxiety and other risks. Time will tell how we manage, as a society, to develop healthy ways to support children’s return to school and we need to work closely with our schools to ensure this is in our child’s best interests emotionally as well as physically. I am offering to support teachers with their anxiety to help children feel that they are in a calm environment where the adults feel safe, too. 

Should I be encouraging my child to go back to school, even if they seem reluctant or worried, or should I allow them more time at home?

It’s so hard to know what is best to do. As a parent you need to feel confident that school will be addressing your child’s anxieties and I would first check in with them how they are doing this.  To minimise anxiety it will be important that you explore it with your child and help them manage it.

We know that avoidance of things that make you anxious can make it worse – by not facing our feared situation we don’t learn that this is okay, only reinforcing our worried feelings and reluctance to try again. However, children’s (and parents) worries about the Coronavirus are pretty rational (often anxiety isn’t) and there are real risks around. 

I am hoping to stagger my children’s return, acknowledging with them that it will be different and quite worrying but also that they are likely to get some positives out of it (they are bored senseless of their parents and siblings!). I will then play it by ear to see how they are managing it. Really this is such an individual decision, based upon the child. I do, however, wonder whether no schooling until September is only going to increase anxiety for some (do you remember how long the summer breaks used to feel and how worried you were about going back to school — “will anyone like me?”, “will anyone remember me?”).

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Do you have any advice on how parents can deal with the stress and anxiety of their children going back to school?

I think you need to remember that you are doing your best in a difficult situation and none of us know what childcare is going to entail.  This is, in itself, stressful.  Parents will need to know that the decision they are making is because they that is what is right for their child based upon what they know, and that everything has some uncertainty around it.  I have found parent friends both helpful and not in terms of thinking through the return to school – some scaremongering and some being very sensible! It seems as though schools are taking a very different approach and we will want to be familiar with our own situation.

Parents may want to think about how they manage their own stress, and, importantly, how they don’t pass it onto their children (emotions are actually physiologically contagious). They may feel less stressed if they have a good idea of what school will look like, and if they have close communication with teachers.  It may also be helpful to think about a gradual return to school (if possible).

Do acknowledge that it is absolutely normal to be anxious about it, and it may bring up other feelings (such as guilt about not making the most of the time with our children during lockdown, or about celebrating their return and our need for some space!). Talk to others, sleep and eat well, exercise and remember that we are getting through something massive, but we are moving forward and we just have to do that slowly.

If you have any more questions about Coronavirus and kids, how your family has been affected and your worries for the future, let us know.

4 thoughts on “Coronavirus and kids: Consultant Clinical Psychologist Answers Your Questions

  1. Wow. This was such an informative post – fantastic that you were able to get an experts opinion on this. It’s a challening time for all our mental health – but imagine it is so much tougher when you have children! Dharma x

    1. Thank you! <3 She was so lovely and helpful. I could have bogged her down with another twenty questions but I managed to hold myself back. So interesting to get an insight into how a child's mind works xx

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