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Children Show Increase in Mental Health Difficulties Over Covid Lockdown

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Parents or carers of children aged 4–10 years of age reported that over a one-month period in lockdown, they saw increases in their child’s emotional difficulties, such as feeling unhappy or worried, being clingy, and experiencing physical symptoms associated with worry. This was according to early results from the Co-SPACE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents, and Children in Epidemics) study, asking parents and carers about their children’s mental health through the Covid crisis.

Over a one-month period in lockdown:

  • Parents or carers of primary school-age children taking part in the survey report an increase in their child’s emotional, behavioural, restlessness or attentional difficulties.
  • Parents or carers of secondary school-age children report a reduction in their child’s emotional difficulties, but an increase in restlessness or attentional behaviours.
  • Adolescents taking part in the survey report no change in their own emotional or behavioural and restlessness or attentional difficulties.
  • Parents or carers of children with special educational needs (SEN) and those with pre-existing mental health difficulties report a reduction in their child’s emotional difficulties and no change in behavioural difficulties or restlessness or attentional difficulties.

More than 10,000 parents have now taken part in the Co-SPACE survey led by experts at the University of Oxford.

Parents or carers also reported that their children’s behaviour had gotten worse over time, with an increase in behaviours such as temper tantrums, arguments, and children not doing what they are asked. Parents or carers in the survey also reported that their children showed greater levels of restlessness or fidgety behaviour and difficulties concentrating over the one-month period.

Perhaps surprisingly, the same pattern was not seen in the older age group of children aged 11–16. Teenagers themselves reported no change in their emotional difficulties between the two-time points and their parents or carers reported that they felt that their child’s emotional difficulties had actually improved. Neither teenagers nor their parents reported any changes in their behaviour over this time but parents felt that their children were more restless and had more difficulty concentrating over time.

Tom Madders, campaigns director at YoungMinds, said: ‘This research suggests that many younger children have found it increasingly hard to cope as the lockdown period has gone on, which may be because of loneliness, fears about the coronavirus, or a loss of the routines and support that come with school.

‘The picture appears to be more variable for older children in this study. Following the anxiety and uncertainty of going into lockdown, some are likely to have found the restrictions more difficult as time has gone on, while others – including those who feel safe and secure at home but who find school challenging – may have adapted well to their new reality. For those young people, going back to school after a long break may well be tough, and it’s vital that there’s a readjustment period where well-being is prioritised.

‘It’s also important to recognise that some of the most vulnerable young people in our society – including those who have experienced abuse, violence, or neglect – are often the hardest to identify. We need to ensure that effective support is available for all children who need it now and as restrictions lift.’

Professor Cathy Creswell, professor of developmental clinical psychology, at the University of Oxford, and co-leading the study, said: ‘Prioritising the mental health of children and young people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond is critical. These findings highlight that there is wide variation in how children and young people have been affected, with some finding life easier but others experiencing more difficulties. Our findings have identified some sources of variation but we need to continue to gain a better understanding of which families are struggling and what they need to help direct the right advice and support going forward to ensure that this does not have long-lasting consequences.’

The Co-SPACE survey is still open and keen for parents and carers to share their experiences. This research is tracking children and young people’s mental health throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Survey results are helping researchers identify what protects children and young people from deteriorating mental health, over time and at particular stress points, and how this may vary according to child and family characteristics. This will help to identify what advice, support, and help parents would find most useful.

This research is supported through UKRI COVID-19 Rapid Response funding and by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, the Oxford and Thames Valley NIHR Applied Research Consortium, and the UKRI Emerging Minds Network Plus.

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