Helping safeguard children’s health under lockdown full of challenges

Routines have been destroyed and mass play dates cancelled. So how to safeguard children’s wellbeing during the pandemic?

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 4th June 2020, 8:00 am
Home schooling has become a headache for many parents
Home schooling has become a headache for many parents

With home schooling now the norm, harried parents are trying to teach maths lessons while dealing with a myriad other household tasks or remote working schedules, screen time has invariably increased and some children will find themselves in poverty-stricken households as thousands lose their jobs.

The revolution in our daily routines is difficult for adults to quantify and so how much harder for young minds to get to grips with the ‘new normal’?

How to explain the pandemic to children or attempt to make them understand the new imperatives of social distancing when their instincts are close contact with their contemporaries, horseplay, hugs, falling on top of each other on bouncy castles or gathering for cake and sweets at classmates’ balloon-filled birthday parties?

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How then do parents attempt to safeguard children’s psychological wellbeing as well as ensuring they take all possible measures to prevent against the chances of physical infection?

These are testing, confusing times for children who are usually reliant on the comforts of established routine, close friendships, classrooms, and packed playgrounds.

Professor of Psychological Trauma and Mental Health at Queen’s University Belfast, Cherie Armour, has completed over a decade of research on how children cope in times of adversity.

She emphasises that there will be a huge degree of variability in how lockdown impacts on children, depending on their individual circumstances; in homes where there was already a level of dysfunction or vulnerability to psychological distress then the effects are likely to be more negative.

What Prof Armour emphasises is the need to explain the pandemic to children in age appropriate language, the necessity of having routine, structure and meaning in each day spent at home, and the importance of regular sleep patterns in reducing the risks of psychological disturbance.

“It’s very important to try to explain the pandemic to children in terms they can understand,” she says. “Research suggests that talking things through with children rather than keeping them in the dark is better for their psychological health, provided you monitor their understanding and dispel misinformation that might leave them unduly anxious.

“Children thrive on routine and the uncertainties that have become a reality due to Covid have the potential to cause immense distress. If you have children who are particularly reliant on services and structure available within the school system, such as those with particular vulnerabilities or educational needs, then these children will struggle particularly when that routine is removed.

“I think in the absence of school establishing a strict routine in the home is very important to give children that sense of certainty and the comfort of what to expect each day.

“But what that looks like may vary from family to family; so it’s about carving out set times for different activities. Play, study, exercise - all are important.

“Regular sleep patterns - going to bed and getting up at the same time - is enormously important for children’s psychological wellbeing. Good quality sleep prevents against the development of psychological symptoms associated with various forms of mental illness.”

Although Prof Armour points to literature which detailed the presence of symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 30 per cent of children emerging from quarantine during the SARS outbreak in China and the US in 2004, there is much that can be done to reduce the likelihood of this. Staying in touch with others is another obviously key factor, and one easily assisted by modern technology.

“Children might be physically isolated during lockdown but they are not socially isolated thanks to the opportunities for communication that virtual platforms provide us with.

“So children can stay connected to their peer group through the use of digital devices. Parents can help by setting up group chats for children via Zoom, for example. Older children are already always glued to their phones so for them that sense of connectedness need not be broken under lockdown.

“We can be that bit more relaxed about the amount of time children are spending on screens at the moment, provided we know exactly what they are doing during that screen time.”

Ellen Finlay is policy officer at local charity Children in Northern Ireland, an organisation which runs a regional parenting helpline - Parentline NI. She explains that when lockdown was annnounced they were inundated with calls from parents who felt overwhelmed at the prospect of home schooling, grappling with an overload of information and an arduous fight to keep young minds focused.

“Parents have been struggling to establish new educational routines with their children and some have complained about a lack of sufficient contact from schools,” says Ellen. “It is particularly challenging for parents of children with disabilities or learning difficulties, where they are just sent out work sheets without detailed instruction and parents of these children are suffering particularly, because where school would have provided respite and specialist care, now parents are 24/7 carers as well as temporary teachers and the stress they are under is huge.

“All we can do is encourage parents to do their best to get into some kind of routine that works and keeps you both happy.

“We try to remind parents that involving children in everyday tasks can also be educational, things like helping to make the dinner or helping out in the garden learning about flowers or growing vegetables - these can be different kinds of learning experiences too.”

As the summer holidays approach, organisations like Ellen’s are worried that specialist summer schemes for children with specific educational needs and behavioural difficulties may not go ahead, leaving parents bewildered trying to find ways to keep their children happy, connected and occupied.

“We had hoped that certain organisations could still run schemes while practising social distancing measures. We know, for example, that Mencap is providing some form of respite for children over the summer while in smaller groups.

“Children’s mental health and wellbeing is a massive concern for us because we are hearing about how much they miss their friends and the levels of interaction with others that they are used to.”

Children in Northern Ireland deals with ‘holiday hunger’; for some children the absence of school means they are deprived of their only square meal of the day. As soon as it was announced that the schools were closing, the charity was immmediately lobbying to ensure the Department of Education made a cash payment to families where children would normally receive free school meals.

“At the moment we are campaigning for this payment to continue to be made available to families over the summer months, but Peter Weir, Minister for Education, is saying there is no money for this. However, we are in contact with a number of MLAs who are helping us to get this decision reversed.”

According to statistics there are around 190,000 children in Northern Ireland currently entitled to free school meals, with that number likely to continue to rise as unemployment under lockdown intensifies.

“There is a real danger of children going hungry over the summer months and we are doing all we can to try to make sure this does not become a reality,” adds Ellen.

You can contact Parentline NI for information and advice on 0808 802 0400.