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Children’s mental health in lockdown – will it be different this time?

Unhappy girl in a school classroom

By Marc McLaren

This year has dragged like no other. Is it really only eight months since the first lockdown started in the UK? It feels like a decade.

And now the nations of the UK are in different phases of further restrictions, including full lockdown in England. Parents are understandably worried about the effects on their children.

Multiple studies – including our own – have shed light on the difficulties many children have experienced during this period. So what should we be aware of? And what can parents do to help?

Mental wellbeing in lockdown

The first lockdown had a negative effect on many children and young people.

In our research, conducted with Ipsos MORI in October 2020, 32% of parents said that their child’s mental and wellbeing had worsened since restrictions started in March. Lower-income families fared worst of all: for parents earning below £20,000, the figure rose to 36%.

A YoungMinds survey of 2,036 young people with a history of mental health needs similarly reported that 80% said that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health worse.

And Oxford University’s Co-SPACE study found that during the first lockdown from March to June, behavioural and restless/attentional difficulties increased, particularly among 4-10 year olds. This study found that children from lower-income households, and those with special educational needs, experienced higher levels of behavioural, emotional, and restless/ attentional difficulties.

Lockdown 2.0

The latest restrictions are different, not least because schools are still open. In our research, parents said that in the first lockdown ‘missing friends’ was the main reason that their child’s mental health and wellbeing worsened, and more than half pointed to boredom and missing school.

Children still can’t see friends outside school – but in theory they should fare better this time.

School openings haven’t fixed everything, however. According to YoungMinds, 69% of children described their mental health as poor now that they were back at school, up from 58% who described their mental health as poor before returning.

“While it’s welcome that schools remain open during this lockdown, our research shows that some young people have struggled with their mental health since going back due to the pressure of catching up on school work and the worries around bringing the virus back home to their family members,” explains Stevie Goulding, Parents Helpline Manager at YoungMinds.

Nor have all schools been able to offer the increased mental health support that their pupils may need. In the YoungMinds study, 40% of respondents said that there was no school counsellor available at their school. Only 27% had had a one-to-one conversation with a teacher or another member of staff in which they were asked about their wellbeing.

Schools, under huge pressure and with additional costs, simply do not have the resources to provide the level of pastoral support that is now required.

The digital divide

While schools may be open, not all children are attending regularly. Some schools are having to close entirely due to outbreaks, while many pupils will at some point have to self-isolate – whether because they’ve tested positive for Covid themselves, or they’ve come into contact with another child who has.

In the last week of October, school attendance was at just 86%; the DfE, meanwhile, estimates that on one single day last week, 4% of pupils in state-funded schools did not attend school for Covid-related reasons.

Aside from the obvious effect on children’s mental wellbeing, homeschooling brings the digital divide into sharp relief. Some 1.7m children in the UK have no home access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet; that’s 21% of children in low-income households.

The digital divide existed before, but these children are at a stark and growing disadvantage, because all the indications are that there’s going to be more blended learning.

Our own research reflects this trend: 85% of families in the top earnings bracket said that connected tech helped them during lockdown, dropping to 71% for those in the lowest income bracket.

In April 2020, the Department for Education presented a ‘get help with technology’ scheme, with 250,000 more computers promised. Now, although 500,000 children remain eligible, laptop and router allocations for some areas are to be cut by 80%.

The fear of falling behind in school work is a real one – and even with schools open, it’s likely to be a growing concern for many young people.

An ongoing problem

Children are very adaptable and lockdown may actually have helped some: the Co-SPACE study found that behavioural, emotional, and restless/ attentional difficulties decreased between July and September after lockdown eased, especially among primary school-aged children.

But this won’t be true of all children. And even if a vaccine is rolled out, it will be months before we get back to normal.

“Through our work with hundreds of schools around the UK, we know that the pandemic has been especially challenging for many families and young people,” says Catherine Roche, Chief Executive of children’s mental health charity Place2Be. “Lockdown measures can make us feel more isolated, especially as the wintery weather forces us all indoors.”

What can parents do to help?

Unfortunately, only one in three children get help for mental health when they need it. And that’s a big problem, because it’s widely recognised that early intervention can make all the difference.

Parents can help a lot by keeping the lines of communication open and encouraging children to talk freely about their feelings. Listen to what they have to say. Don’t rush to solutions – just paying attention and taking their feelings seriously will help.

“If you are really concerned, it’s worthwhile trying to speak to your child’s school and your GP,” says Roche. “And it might seem impossible, but try to find time to take care of your own wellbeing too, even if it’s just scheduling in a bit of ‘me time’ to do something you enjoy. You are your child’s role model, and looking after yourself is crucial in order to be able to support them.”

For younger children, we hope that Ollee, our new app for children aged 8-11 and their parents, can help.

Created by Parent Zone and funded by BBC Children in Need’s A Million & Me initiative, Ollee is a virtual friend that helps children open up about how they’re feeling and then talk to a trusted adult.

Ollee prompts young users to choose the subject they want to talk about – including school, friendships and their body – then express their feelings. If they wish, they can share this, and the advice they get, with a parent and kick-start what might otherwise be a tricky conversation.

The app is also packed with advice for both children and adults about hundreds of topics, from bullying to internet safety to puberty.

Ollee is designed to help parents do something they do naturally and as a matter of course: support their children.

The pandemic is going to be with us for a time. Parents can do a surprising amount to help their children by keeping in touch with what they’re feeling and encouraging them to talk.

Images: pressmaster/Yura Yarema/Budimir Jevtic/leszekglasner, all stock.adobe.com


Further help

Ollee

Ollee is a virtual friend for children aged 8-11 and their parents. Created by Parent Zone and funded by BBC Children in Need’s A Million & Me initiative, it helps families talk about difficult subjects and offers advice about hundreds of topics, from bullying to internet safety to puberty. Ollee is available as a web app here

YoungMinds

If you are worried about the mental health of a young person in your care, you can visit the YoungMinds website for tips on how to spot the signs and support them. Any parent or carer worried about the mental health of young person under 25 can call or email the YoungMinds Helpline for free.

Place2Be

Place2Be has a host of helpful online advice articles and resources for families including arts and craft activity ideas, as well as lots more tips on the Every Mind Matters site.