It’s been a tough year for mental health. The anxiety around Covid, along with the disruption to routine and the increased isolation has been hard on us all. As adults, life experience gives us more perspective – a year isn’t such a long time, normal life will resume eventually. But for children, it’s more difficult. A Prince’s Trust survey earlier this year found that over half of the children and young people asked said their mental health had worsened in the pandemic. Those working in children’s mental health are preparing themselves for an influx of young people in need of help.
The impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health
At Mable Therapy, our online children’s counselling service has seen a massive rise in referrals since the start of the pandemic; it’s hardly surprising. Children thrive on routine and structure; two things that have been lacking in the last 12 months.
At best, children have had a year of boredom, stuck at home without seeing their friends or enjoying their regular hobbies. For others, that boredom has developed into loneliness and isolation, which has descended into low mood and depression. They’ve also seen an increase in children who are self-harming or who have suicidal thoughts, and worryingly, those referrals are getting younger.
The most common issue they’re seeing for referrals is anxiety. Under that broad umbrella, there has been a rise in two key types: social anxiety and health anxiety. It’s no surprise that both are on the rise. For those children naturally predisposed to social anxiety, who struggle in group situations or even one-to-one, they’ve had a year of isolation from tricky interactions. While this might have brought temporary respite, it’s also conflated their fear of returning to social situations, building the anticipation up until they feel overwhelmed. Similarly, for those with health anxiety, the message we’ve all been receiving is that the only way to stay safe is to stay at home. For these children, a return to ‘normal life’ is completely terrifying.
How can parents tell if their child is struggling with anxiety?
There are obvious signs that a child is struggling with anxiety. Angry outbursts, persistent crying, panic attacks, and nightmares are all clear signs that something is wrong, but it can be harder to spot the subtler signs.
Any changes in behaviour are a sign that a child may need support. Changes to appetite, sleep pattern, or a reduction in the effort they put into their school work or personal hygiene could mean there’s a problem. A common sign of a mental health issue is if the child seems more withdrawn. The return to school can make this harder to spot as it can easily be mistaken for tiredness after a long day, but if the child is spending much more time alone and taking less interest in their relationship with family and friends then it’s important to investigate whether they need support.
What can parents do to support anxious children?
If a parent is worried, it’s important to get their child talking. Sitting them at the kitchen table and interrogating them may not help with the anxiety, so it’s better to engineer a situation where the conversation flows naturally, like a long walk or a drive.
If the child does open up, it’s important to use active listening. Put simply, this means giving our full attention, without interrupting, or trying to problem-solve. It can be tempting to try to dismiss their worries as silly, telling them: ‘You have nothing to worry about,’ but this may make the child feel more isolated and less inclined to open up next time. Instead, it’s important to validate their anxiety: ‘I really understand why you’re anxious,’ and normalise it: ‘Lots of children will be feeling just like you.’ By doing that, the child will feel reassured and less alone. It can also be helpful to ask: ‘What can we do together to make you feel less anxious?’ Not only do they feel supported, but it gets them thinking of solutions too.
There are more practical steps parents can take. Making sure routines are in place, such as a regular bedtime, will help the child feel safer and reduce their anxiety. Talking to the child’s school and letting them know what to look out for will also give everyone a more informed picture of how the child is. In the longer term, practising mindfulness, a healthy diet, and plenty of exercise are all proven to reduce anxiety. Many of us have fallen into a lockdown rut, so getting all the family on board with this should help everyone to have a healthier, happier household.
Helen Spiers is the Head of Counselling at Mable Therapy.