Since the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, school life as we previously knew it became extremely disrupted. Sydney endured a 107-day lockdown from June 2021 to October 2021, not to mention the first nationwide lockdown from March 23, 2020 to June 2020.
Teachers, parents and students had to pivot to a new way of learning, with parents and teachers juggling their own work commitments while having their children at home. Students were kept apart from their friends for extended periods of time; school activities including excursions, concerts and sport were put on hold; and highly anticipated milestone events such as school formals and presentation nights were cancelled. The effects of this on children, their schooling and family life have been wide-ranging, detrimental and often overwhelming. School students were not able to enjoy in-person interaction with friends and family or the freedom of physical movement and, as a result, staying focused and motivated to learn in these uncertain times was understandably difficult.
A 2021 Life Education parent survey of Australian families, released in February 2021, revealed that 52 per cent of parents believe that the global COVID-19 crisis impacted the wellbeing of their children. “The study found almost 60 per cent of children were sensitive to the impacts of the pandemic on family stress levels,” says Life Education CEO, Kellie Sloane. The survey also showed that 65 per cent of children felt isolated, 49 per cent had increased irritability, 49 per cent were worried more than usual and 47 per cent were feeling sad.
“It was a challenging time for children who were in extended lockdowns in Australia,” says Kellie. “While many of them did very well, some struggled. It’s important for us to support those kids and their teachers to start important conversations about wellbeing.”
In the survey, a high number of parents rated the resilience of their children as “inconsistent”, with 41 per cent of parents doubting the ability of their kids to bounce back from setbacks and stresses.
The impact of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions on children and parents
A report released in September 2020, A Lasting Legacy, revealed the immediate impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on children and parents across Australia, with many parents fearing the residual harmthat will continue beyond the spread of the virus.
Almost a third of parents were frightened that the impact of COVID-19 will have lasting mental health impacts, such as ongoing heightened anxiety and stress, for their children. One in five parents were concerned about their children’s future social development and self-confidence.
The everyday lives of children, families and communities was significantly affected by COVID-19. Our sense of normality is most often associated with predictability, routine and a rhythm to how we live our lives. Changes to the way we live, the way we learn and the way we work brought inevitable stressors, concerns and threats to our health and wellbeing. Family life was impacted significantly.
Social-distancing restrictions and lockdown measures resulted in a significant number of children experiencing a range of shortfalls in their daily routines. The absence of their ability to play with friends during lockdown was acutely experienced by eight out of 10 children. More than two-thirds of children missed their grandparents and extended family. The loss of face-to-face school and sporting activities was also significant for many children.
Dr Joe Tucci, chief executive officer of the Australian Childhood Foundation and lead author of the report, says the ACF’s Lasting Legacy research highlighted the need for a renewed focus on supporting families as they navigate their way through the pandemic. “The research highlights that parents are not only concerned for their children’s wellbeing now, but also their own,” says Dr Tucci. “They know that COVID-19 is impacting their children’s development in the long term.”
But it is not all doom and gloom. Most parents emerged from the first experience of lockdown with an increased appreciation for their family and time with their children. The results reveal families enjoyed extra time together, faced unique challenges with love and used the comfort of each other to face adversity. Almost half of the parents (48 per cent) believed that the experiences of COVID-19 will lead them to change their long-term approach to parenting and family life. Indeed, almost eight in 10 parents believed that COVID-19 would result in a stronger and more cohesive sense of family in the future.
“Parents have a role in caregiving,” says Dr Tucci. “They are family and household leaders. In this pandemic, parents were also on the frontline of their children’s daily experiences. They interpreted the signs of danger that children and young people see around them. They helped answer children’s questions.”
The insights point to the critical need for ongoing support of children, young people, and parents. “As the COVID-19 crisis moves into different phases, children will feel the legacy of their experiences linger,” says Dr Tucci. “They will have been through a collective trauma — the likes of which had not been part of their life to date. They missed out on friends, anniversaries, birthdays and sport. They have lost a lot.”
In response to COVID-19, the Australian Childhood Foundation has extended its delivery of specialist therapeutic support and intervention with children, young people, families and carer households using digital modalities, such as texting, emails, telephone and video calls. The foundation also created a range of parenting resources and tools to assist parents face the challenges of parenting during the pandemic. These resources are available for free, visit professionals.childhood.org.au/covid-19
Reach out for support
It’s times like these when checking in on our children and friends is not only vital, but also more important than ever. The good news is that there are many support networks and resources available outside of school, including Lifeline, R U OK, Headspace, NSW Health, Kids Helpline, Beyond Blue and Emerging Minds.
“Our children know their friends well — they often pick up when a friend is struggling,” says R U OK? CEO Katherine Newton. “The simple act of asking ‘are you OK?’ develops empathy and connections and deepens friendships. Looking out for one another and lending support is a key life skill for any age group. While children can’t be expected to fix someone’s problems, they can be encouraged to listen to what their friend is saying, show they care and tell a teacher, school counsellor or trusted adult if they are worried about their friend.”
Child mental health advice for parents
For parents and carers concerned about their children’s mental health, Victoria State Government’s Department of Health chief psychiatrist Dr Neil Coventry has some helpful suggestions.
Talk to your child and listen
Spend time with your child
Spend time with your child and find the right time to talk to them about how they’re feeling.‘“We need to be talking to our children about how they are coping,” says Dr Coventry. “Please, reach out to your kids. Don’t be anxious and afraid to have a conversation about how your kids are coping. What are their challenges and confusions about what is going on? I stress, this is a series of conversations. Not a one-off, single intense conversation.
“Choose your opportunity as a parent when you may be doing an activity with your child to have these conversations. It is a case of less is more and repeated conversations to explore how your child might be feeling.
“Encourage them to ask questions and, as adults, try to answer those questions as truthfully as we are able to do. It is really important to acknowledge the feelings of children and to recognise and help them to understand how they can manage this distress that they experience.”
Check your child is getting enough sleep
National guidelines advise at least nine hours sleep a night for kids aged five to 12 and eight hours for kids aged 13 to 19. A balance is needed between study, relaxation, chill-out time, exercise and meals, but also, more importantly, around the sleep patterns, particularly for vulnerable teenagers.
Ensure your child is getting enough exercise
Spend time with your children walking, cycling or running to encourage activity.
Talk to your child’s teachers
What have your child’s teachers observed? Ask if they can keep a close eye on your child and advise on what may be going on. There are mental health counsellors in almost every public secondary school and in some primary schools. Can your child access this support?
Engage other trusted adults
Find out whether there are other adults your child trusts such as a teacher, a relative, family friend or health professional, who they feel comfortable talking to.
Be persistent and get professional help
It is important for parents to not give up trying. If your child is not their normal self, and does not respond to your attempts to help and problem solve, get in touch with your GP, Headspace or your local child and youth mental health service.
If an appointment is offered, take it no matter how far into the future it is. In the meantime, work with your GP and your child’s school to help support your child.
In an emergency, parents should contact their local child and youth mental health service for advice, or emergency services by calling triple zero (000) if the situation is urgent.
Most importantly, parents should try not to panic. “We know from research and experience that children and youth are reassured by parents who approach uncertainty with what appears to be a plan,” says Dr Coventry.
Making time for mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness offers a multitude of mental and physical health benefits. It can help you improve your life by identifying self-defeating and erroneous thought patterns, and it empowers you to reap greater enjoyment from the present.
All ages, including children, can benefit from mindfulness practices. To raise mindful children, start by incorporating the following into your daily routine — getting outside more, enjoying family mealtime together, practising yoga, being creative with colouring books, embracing quiet time and introducing end-of-day meditation to reflect on the day that was.
Free apps such as the Smiling Mind (smilingmind.com.au/smiling-mind-app) are a great way to access short, guided meditations and mindfulness techniques.
Stop; Breathe & Think Kids is a mindfulness and meditation app aimed at children. This app provides mindful games and activities that aim to assist users in a range of areas. It also includes missions to complete video animations and stickers that reward progress in the app.
Headspace: Guided Meditation is a guided meditation and mindfulness app, and provides hundreds of guided meditations, which focus on several different topics with a new topic everyday. The app also features sleep sounds; tutorial animations; a meditation progress tracker; and exercises that are designed for children.
ReachoutBreathe is an app that reduces the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety by helping the user control their breathing and heart rate.Music e-scape is an app that uses the user’s music library to help them reach their desired mood.Guided meditations is a range of guided meditation recordings for teens.