Wonderful to see the government publish this advice to parents and carers looking after our young people’s mental health at this time when everything has changed for them and they are cut off from their routine, peers and support networks.
Some of the key pieces of advice that has come from working with charities in the sector is:
Listen and acknowledge: Children and young people may respond to stress in different ways. Signs may be emotional (for example, they may be upset, distressed, anxious, angry or agitated), behavioural (for example, they may become more clingy or more withdrawn, they may wet the bed), or physical (for example, they may experience stomach aches). Look out for any changes in their behaviour.
Children and young people may feel less anxious if they are able to express and communicate their feelings in a safe and supportive environment. Children and young people who communicate differently to their peers may rely on you to interpret their feelings. Listen to them, acknowledge their concerns, and give them extra love and attention if they need it.
Provide clear information about the situation: All children and young people want to feel that their parents and caregivers can keep them safe. The best way to achieve this is by talking openly about what is happening and providing honest answers to any questions they have. Explain what is being done to keep them and their loved ones safe, including any actions they can take to help, such as washing their hands regularly.
Use words and explanations that they can understand and make sure you use reliable sources of information such as the GOV.UK or NHS website – there is a lot of misleading information from other sources that will create stress for you and your family.
It will not always be possible to provide answers to all the questions children and young people may ask, or to allay all their concerns, so focus on listening and acknowledging their feelings to help them feel supported.
Be aware of your own reactions: Remember that children and young people often take their emotional cues from the important adults in their lives, so how you respond to the situation is very important. It is important to manage your own emotions and remain calm, listen to and acknowledge children and young people’s concerns, speak kindly to them, and answer any questions they have honestly.
See further guidance on how to look after your own mental wellbeing during the outbreak.
Connect regularly: If it is necessary for you or your children to be in a different location to normal (for example, staying at home in different locations or hospitalisation) make sure you still have regular and frequent contact via the phone or video calls with them. Try to help your child understand what arrangements are being made for them and why in simple terms.
Create a new routine: Life is changing for all of us for a while. Routine gives children and young people an increased feeling of safety in the context of uncertainty, so think about how to develop a new routine – especially if they are not at school:
- make a plan for the day or week that includes time for learning, playing and relaxing
- if they have to stay home from school, ask teachers what you can do to support continued learning at home. Online educational resources and activities to support children’s learning are available from the BBC
- children and young people need to ideally be active for 60 minutes a day, which can be more difficult when spending longer periods of time indoors. Plan time outside if you can do so safely or see Change4Life for some ideas for indoor games and activities
- don’t forget that sleep is really important for mental and physical health so try to keep to existing bedtime routines
- it may be tempting to give them treats, such as sweets or chocolate, to compensate for being housebound, but this is not good for their health, especially as they will not be able to be to run around or be as active as they normally do – see Change4Life for ideas for healthy treats
Limit exposure to media and talk about what they have seen and heard: Children and young people, like adults, may become more distressed if they see repeated coverage of the outbreak in the media. A complete news blackout is also rarely helpful as they are likely to find out from other sources, such as online or through friends.
Try to avoid turning the television off or closing web pages when children or young people come into the room. This can peak their interest to find out what is going on – and their imagination can take over. Instead, consider limiting the amount of exposure you and your family get to troubling media coverage.
Young people will also hear things from friends and get information from social media. Talk to them about what is going on and ask them what they have heard about. Try to answer their questions and reassure them in an age appropriate manner, avoiding too much detail