19 Apr 2020

Lockdown bringing little emotional harm to most children - psychologist

5:31 pm on 19 April 2020

A clinical psychologist says most children will not suffer long-term emotional harm as a result of the Covid 19 lockdown and she's warning parents not to panic.

For most children lockdown is child's play.

For most children lockdown is child's play. Photo: 123RF

But Catherine Gallagher says some young people who are already vulnerable may struggle if the home is an unsafe environment or the lockdown compounds other financial or domestic stresses.

Some studies and articles indicated prolonged stress could impact upon children's emotional and physical growth.

However, Gallagher said many of her young clients had been more concerned about the threat of Covid 19 before the lockdown and now felt safer in their home environments.

"They're hunkering down and they're making this new normal as normal as possible . The brain has an amazing capacity to adjust and kids have an even greater ability to adjust," she said.

The change in lifestyle presented by the lockdown could be a risk factor for some young people already suffering from anxiety or depression but it was simplistic to assume they would all react in the same way, Gallagher added.

"I've had some anxious kids who've gone, 'Yay, I don't have to be around situations that make me anxious. I love being at home'.''

For these clients the lockdown represented an escape from speaking up in class or worrying about what to wear. Their challenge would be re-transitioning back into those high-risk situations, Gallagher said.

"Of course that doesn't mean they can't do it. It just might require a bit of extra resourcing and support and a bit of normalising that it might be a bit tough to get back into things as they were."

However, other clients were finding that too much spare time during the lockdown brought on negative thoughts.

"For them the idea of having strategies around how do they make sense of this experience. How do they mark time. How do they do what they can to keep themselves well because realistically this won't be that easy for them.... so we need to plan for that."

The lockdown was not traumatic in itself. What mattered was how people experienced it and whether they were directly affected by the situation, Gallagher said.

"What might make it traumatic is if I lost a parent or a grandparent. If we lost our family home.

''If mum or dad starts drinking under the stress of it and there's some family violence or there was already family violence and I had a way of coping with it, which was actually to stay out of the house as much as I possibly could and now I can't do that."

Families bereaved by the virus and those facing financial problems brought on by the lockdown would be the hardest hit but, again, not all would be react in the same way.

Those who had experienced challenges such as the Canterbury earthquakes might cope well while others, who had no lived experience of hardship, might be floored by the experience, Gallagher said.

However, she believed many other children who were not directly impacted by the virus should make an easy transition back to their pre-Covid 19 lives and she urged parents not to focus upon risk.

"When I hear people say that there's going to be long-term impacts, that's what makes me grumpy because you've got a bunch of parents around New Zealand who.. pick up on it because it's risk-related and go 'Oh, my gosh, how do I protect my kids from this'."

It was normal for young people to feel upset because they missed their friends and parents should empathise with them and give space for their feelings, Gallagher said.

However, she also suggested limiting children's access to too much media and focussing instead on positive family routines.

"The things are going to mitigate long-term impacts are having life being as settled as possible, having routines in this new, weird normal. Talk through what's happening and adjust how we need to be with each other. Take physically good care of ourselves."

Children usually did well if their parents were coping so Gallagher urged adults to seek support or time out if they needed it and to reduce home schooling if it was proving too stressful.

"Parents [are] feeling they're being assessed like 'If we don't get this home schooling enough, our kid's going to go back to school and be behind everyone else and my child's going to be judged and I'll be judged.''

No caption

Psychologist Catherine Gallagher says parents shouldn't panic about their children's wellbeing during lockdown. Photo: Supplied

Children would ultimately ease back into school and, at the same time, shed other habits that had become normalised during the lockdown, Gallagher said.

"Washing your hands 40 times or looking at strangers as though they were dangerous have now become pretty functional. So, one long-term impact may be that we take time to settle back into feeling safe."

However, over time, most young people would soon shift their focus back to their own personal interests and activities.

"What we typically find is that we can't stay in this state of life and death for very long. It's too tiring. So, when the risk has passed us, we settle back into a reality where we start worrying about what I'm wearing to that party on Saturday night again or whether someone has returned my text."

Ultimately she believed many families would weather the lockdown experience without any lasting problems.

"For most kids the beautiful lesson is that weird stuff can happen but we can be proud as New Zealanders that we all pulled together and look how well we did."

The power of play

Christchurch mother and educator, Celia Hogan, has seen the effects of stress on children first hand

Hogan was at a conference near Hagley Park on March 15 2019 when the attacks on Al Noor Mosque took place about 800m away.

Her five-year-old son overheard a radio item saying there had been a shooting near Hagley Park.

"So when I came home after being in lockdown later that night he ran up to me and he said 'Mummy, I thought you were dead'.''

That set off what she describes as a six-month period of regression in her son.

"He needed to be near me. He was really clingy. He didn't want to go to school. He needed to sleep in our bed."

Celia Hogan believed if parents allowed children plenty of playtime, most would emerge 'unscathed' from the lockdown.

Celia Hogan believed if parents allowed children plenty of playtime, most would emerge 'unscathed' from the lockdown. Photo: Supplied

Hogan and her husband focused on creating a calm home environment with no raised voices and limited access to any media.

"Really trying to reduce any stress in our son's life and being really supportive through drop off at school, staying until he felt secure enough to let me go."

Now with the country currently in lockdown due to Covid 19 Hogan has opted to forgo school work and instead have her children spend the time in creative and outdoor play.

''That's how they develop some of their emotional coping strategies. When they're playing outside, its helping them to stay emotionally and physically healthy."

She believed if parents allowed children plenty of playtime, most would emerge 'unscathed' from the lockdown.

''I think children will be OK. I think they will bounce back quite easily.''

Hogan's own business, Little Kiwis Nature Play, offered nature-based experiences to schools and early child-hood centres to build resilience and reduce anxiety in children.

"It helps them process some of the emotions or the experiences they've had during the day and get them all out. It's helping them cope with the feeling of being overwhelmed or of fear."

Other strategies for de-stressing children included rough and tumble and playing with 'loose parts' or items that could be used in more than one way.

'So I always give the example of a stick which can be a fishing rod. It can be a mixer. It can be a wand. It can be anything that a child's imagination can create."

Hogan's back yard was filled with planks, tyres, broken chairs, 'old bits of what might be classed as junk'. She said using these as part of their play gave children a sense of control over what they were doing.

"Änxiety is being linked to being overwhelmed and having too much structure where children feel out of control.

So what we've done is tried to give our children as much control as possible through this lockdown so …their anxiety levels are lower."

Parents should also keep their emotions in check to avoid stressing children and develop their own strategies such as getting outside every day, limiting their own screen time and using positive affirmations."

"If we are feeling anxious or worried or overwhelmed ourselves, our children are going to pick up on that and that's going to increase their anxiety levels."

Hogan believed some children might regress or need to pause things they had previously done.

"So a child who's already been tying their shoe laces for a couple of years might be [saying] 'Mummy, tie my shoe laces.'"

Hogan urged parents to be supportive of these changes.

''Just lowering those expectations, that is a way of them connecting in with us and saying 'You're my safety net. Show me that I'm safe with you,' so I think as adults we also have a role in this.''

Tips for helping children during Levels 3 and 4

  • Keep life as settled as possible
  • Maintain old routines or develop new ones but don't build too much structure into the day.
  • Talk about stresses with children. Discuss how the lockdown is going and adjust accordingly.
  • Allow physical space for everyone in the family and also mental space to accommodate different emotions.
  • Allow children to play outside and encourage them to lead their own play to feel a sense of control where possible.
  • Manage your own emotions as parents, taking the time to get fresh air, limit screen time or use positive affirmations.
  • Use rough and tumble play with children to reduce anxiety levels.
  • Limit access to too much media or information about the virus and/or death tolls.
  • Take physical care of yourself.
  • Don't worry too much about school work if it has become stressful. A few weeks off will not harm a child or set them back when school resumes.
  • Lower expectations of what children might achieve in the lockdown environment. Accept any regression and make sure the child feels supported.
  • Focus on the positive collective achievement: how New Zealanders are pulling together to reduce the spread of the virus.

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs