Bonus episode: Children’s mental health during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
Narrator [00:00:02] Welcome to the Emerging Minds podcast.
Sophie Guy [00:00:08] You’re with Sophie Guy. And today I bring you a special bonus episode of the Emerging Minds podcast on supporting children’s social and emotional wellbeing during these unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, I talk with Brad Morgan, Director of the Emerging Minds National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, about what might be coming up for children and parents as they navigate new regulations about isolation as well as working from home and for some schooling from home. We talk about some key strategies that parents can put in place to support their children’s social and emotional well-being at this time. Well thank you very much Brad for taking the time to join me today for another podcast episode.
Brad Morgan [00:00:51] Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Sophie Guy [00:00:53] Life, as we know, has certainly changed. And many families are now finding themselves spending a lot more time at home together and facing the prospect of home-schooling their children. Let’s start with imagining how the world might look right now to a child. How might a six-year-old be feeling and thinking about all the changes to his life and in his family right now as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic?
Brad Morgan [00:01:20] It’s sort of hard to say exactly what every six-year old’s experience of this is like. But some of the common things I think we can assume what’s happening for a six-year-old is that life has changed quite a lot. So for some people, they either at home, for school or for some children, their classrooms are more empty than they usually are. And the other big change in children’s lives is how much exposure they’re getting to this information about a virus or COVID or all these sorts of words that they might understand and might my glimpses of them might hear it on the radio, on the news a lot. That might hear parents or family or friends talking about that a lot. The other big change that’s happening for children is particularly around the adults in their lives, likely to be a lot more anxious, or worried or stressed. And with that worry and stress comes, you know, just changes in the atmosphere at home and changes in how we relate to each other. So those three big changes, I think the children in particular would be quite exposed to at this time.
Sophie Guy [00:02:26] What then, in the context of lots of news and strange new words and talking about a virus, what are children needing from their parents right now, do you think?
Brad Morgan [00:02:38] I really think for children, all of them are going to be going through this in a different way. So I think from a child’s perspective is someone who’s watching out and listening to them about how they are going and what questions they might have. What assurance they might need, but also people to help them as a whole family, I think, is to think about how do we respond in changing, how do we respond and develop new routines for our family as well. So what we think about in relation to what helps children feel secure, even in the context of some of these challenges, is some reassurance. The other thing we’re really encouraging families to think about is the routine that children have. And we know routines are pretty difficult at the moment for everyone around balancing work and life and family situations. So finding ways to set up some patterns or routines or even persist with some of the routines that were previously part of children’s lives can be really helpful. And then the other part of that support for children is really how we help them manage their emotions around what’s happening and support them through this as well.
Sophie Guy [00:03:49] I was having a look at a few other child-focussed organisations and. The advice is coming out and they all seem to agree that the things you’re talking about talking to children and routines. So I just wanted to pick up on that point of parents being really encouraged to talk to the kids about what is Covid-19. What is this virus? What’s happening? Can you talk a bit about why is this important?
Brad Morgan [00:04:18] I think with lots of these types of situations where there’s big change happening in people’s lives and lots of information, children know something’s different. They know things are changing and. Without someone to be a sounding board and help them make sense of what all these changes are, children can feel a bit alone in that if they not communicated with. And so they might be thinking about things in ways that are quite frightening. They might not be accurate. So really having someone to help them make sense of it, what they’re seeing sort of hearing and feeling. And that tends to be with a whole range of situations. But in particular at the moment, because there is so much change, it is just having someone who can help them process and make sense of it. And that’s really important for children, because the way we make sense of things can really shape how we respond to them as well. So I think in the context of children, if you’re thinking if they’re making sense of this is what it is in those there’s a virus and there’s some changes that we’re all making to minimise the spread of the virus. And some of those changes, we’re staying at home as much as we can, and we’re doing things to prevent the spread of the virus or manage it as best as we can. And the reasons for that are so that we can protect other people and protect our family as well. If we’re making sense of it in that way, it’s really helpful where they’re catching glimpses of hearing about really quite difficult circumstances for some people, hearing about vulnerability. Naturally, they’re going to be thinking, oh, what’s happening with the world? And you’d have heard, unfortunately, some stories and that tends to be what children can be thinking of, is that there’s going to be some really big things as a threat to my life, there’s a threat to people around me. And whilst we can’t sort of do not reality of some of the circumstances, I think sometimes children can end up having some quite extreme ideas about what’s happening as well. And that that’s really wiring and scary. So it’s about providing them with the opportunities that acknowledge that this is worrying but to give them some context around the scale of the worry and what being helpful and what’s. How do you promote hope, I guess, is the ultimate goal we want to be talking through with children about this.
Sophie Guy [00:06:36] And what does promoting hope for children in this situation like?
Brad Morgan [00:06:41] With children, I think the idea of promoting hope. I tend to think of it as what actions are being taken and why we’re doing those actions. I think that offers some quite strong reassurance and hope. So things like handwashing, for example, why are we doing that. Why aren’t we going to community events anymore and explaining why that’s happening? And that in itself is sort of hopefully that it’s helping us to feel like we can do something about it. And we are doing something about it that those things seem to be having an effect as well. So as we sort of have to stand more about what’s happening in sharing some of that knowledge around, well, what we’re doing is actually helping. And I think alongside of that is also just the other way to promote hope in the conversations is listening to what children are worried about and being curious about that and exploring what their understanding is of what they’re hearing in the words they use and unpacking that a bit more. Because if they are thinking something quite catastrophic when it might not be as catastrophic as it is. There’s an element of providing some balance into that discussion around, well, that might not be affecting us or this might be the things that are helpful too.
Sophie Guy [00:07:52] And what about things like showing them what people are doing, for example, on Facebook? There are some different groups around ways to reach out to your neighbours? Or there’s a teddy bear walk at the moment where people are putting teddy bears in their windows and those sorts of things helpful for, are they helpful around hope and helping to show children to feel hopeful about what’s going on?
Brad Morgan [00:08:18] Yeah, definitely. I think a lot of what comes out and I think that’s good news story you want to be sharing with children, isn’t it, around how we’re in this together? And I think that’s something that they really do value, that I’m not alone in this and lots of people are doing this. And I think those sorts of things show the scale of globally what we’re all doing to hang in there together. So those sorts of stories are really good for children. And I really visual things as well around how we’re all finding ways to connect. And within that, we can also assume there’s a lot of and rightly sort of a lot of worry that is happening in families lives, but there’s also some positive things that are happening in a lot of families as well. That children are experiencing too. And it’s good to acknowledge some of those through this as well.
Sophie Guy [00:09:06] Have you got any anecdotes or examples of that?
Brad Morgan [00:09:10] I think one example in my own family is I don’t have to do my drive into work and lose all my hours travelling back and forth. So it just means I get to go home and I get to spend an hour on the trampoline or playing in the backyard, or we get to do some stuff together that I haven’t historically had the opportunity to do just because of the nature of work and those sorts of things. And I know in my sort of neighbourhood there’s, you know, opportunities, I think, to where families are connecting in their backyards. I know we’ve sort of have been talking to our neighbours over the fence for the first time in a long time and those sorts of things. So I think some of those things are happening globally. And we can see some of that effort happening I think is really good. The other thing I think we can see is technology being leveraged for good in this as well. And I think we’ve had some reflections with some different people around. This would have been a lot more difficult if it was potentially 25 years ago where we didn’t have the same level of connectivity, get some really good stories and I think they all offer hope and connexion in different ways.
Sophie Guy [00:10:17] Okay, so we were talking a bit about what things might be looking like for a six-year-old right now with all the different changes going on and the importance of having conversations and inviting children to talk about how they’re feeling. What about babies and toddlers, perhaps, where they don’t have verbal language developed, but what sorts of things that they pick up on and that sort of support to they need right now?
Brad Morgan [00:10:41] Infants and toddlers and can often be a bit of the invisible population, a lot of these sort of discussions about how we’re responding to children. And I actually think for us as a community and as families, they are the ones that probably need our support a lot through these sorts of changes. And the things they likely to be picking up on are quite different, somewhat similar things. But where they’re sort of wells changed is really in their family and their relationship with people. So if you’re thinking about what a baby is going through, it means it might be that they’re feeling a bit more disconnected from their parents at the moment because their parents are feeling a bit worried and then they’re a bit busy trying to manage a whole range of things and make sense of this themselves. And so similarly, there might be some really important people in that baby or toddler’s life that they’re not as connected with anymore. I don’t just have my day with Nana or Grandpa at the moment, and that was a really important part of their lives. So for babies, it’s really important to create those opportunities for connexion and that sort of undivided attention, if possible, that they might need through these things. Because that in it of itself, just spending that time playing and trying to maintain those routines is really important for them and how they’re feeling about things. And so those other people in their lives that are really important that they might not be spending as much time in still finding ways to keep them connected, whether that’s on video catch-up.
[00:12:11] So I think that’s some really important things just for us to really have a bit more a lens on had babies are going. And young children are going through this because it’s a little bit different for them. And helping them to through this time is around that reassurance as well. But that reassurance comes through some of that time we spend with them, but also labelling some of the changes as well. Children often understand more even in language than they can communicate back to us. So there are some simple words and things that babies can understand where young toddlers understand as well. So some of that. Some of that is quite reassuring as well for them. And that might be saying, oh, yeah daddy was a bit worried and stressed but I’m with you now and lets sort of cuddle together. And those sorts of things are still really important things to sort of be saying and reassuring those moments. I think, with babies, as well as the importance of if they’re really struggling with their emotions and parents are really struggling with emotions. Is there a way that you can try and take a breath if you are both edging each other on in those moments where you’re stressed and they’re stressed and that sort of keeps escalating as in that situation is really important. Some of those strategies that parents used to find a way that we’ve got some strategies to use to help calm ourselves down so that we can calm our babies down or calm that young children down.
Sophie Guy [00:13:28] Mm hmm. Going back to you, talking before about the importance of helping children to make sense of what they’re hearing, picking up perhaps from school while they were there, perhaps from hearing their parents’ conversations and that without help to understand, to put some context around it, that that could be a bit frightening for children. I was just wondering what can parents be looking out for to let them to whether perhaps their child is feeling anxious and afraid about what’s going on and perhaps needs a conversation, the opportunity to sit down and talk?
Brad Morgan [00:14:07] Well, I think the idea will always be to try and find a way to make this a regular part of our family conversation its such a dominant thing for families at the moment, that the ideal is that we are just having regular conversations that just pop up, there’s questions that are asked when they need to be, and we can respond to them. But I think some of the things that we’d be encouraging parents in particular, to be looking at for in their children is on the one side, some children may be responding to this and they’re stressed about it. There might be things like, you know, trouble sleeping, or they might be increasingly worried about things. I might be acting out, having some troubling behaviours and things like that as well. I think also to be conscious of recognising that there is some big worries in children’s lives and maybe this understanding where they’re coming from, some of those types of behaviours. But the other thing I think is also for parents is children that might be withdrawing a bit more into themselves, being a bit more quiet. That might not be as emotionally expressive as they usually are as well. I think that’s the other part would really be encouraging families to be on the lookout for as well. And maybe that’s the time to be trying to connect about that, to recognise that maybe they’re struggling with trying to make sense of this inside themselves as well. And within that context is probably being a bit more proactive and just doing some checking in as well. And as parents actually sometimes sharing how we are feeling about it, too. And I guess with when we’re sharing our own feelings as parents, we really don’t want to encourage our own panic to be shared. But it’s ok to sort of say I’m a bit worried about that as well. And I read a story and that made me feel worried. And acknowledging that you’re feeling worried can be an opening as well for children if they are feeling what they can’t express themselves at this stage. So sometimes is about us as parents using our I guess, our own understanding of ourselves, but also children around what creates some space for us to share with each other. How we’re going with this?
Sophie Guy [00:16:05] Could you talk about that perhaps for, you know, for families that maybe this isn’t the norm of talking about tricky topics or topics that are creating anxiety? What would a conversation that is going to help the child feel supported? What would that look like?
Brad Morgan [00:16:24] Some simple ways I think of we’re getting that conversation started is to, as a parent, think about some of the things that your child has lightly witnessed or experienced and maybe start a conversation about that. So, you know, you might have noticed I’ve been looking on my phone more than I normally do. And the reason I’ve been doing that is up in looking up information about this virus. And sometimes I find it hard not to do that. And the reason I’m struggling with that at the moment is I’m a bit worried. Are you worried about it, too? And so to start off with a conversation like that invites children into that. And then if a child then starts to respond and saying, you know, I’m a bit worried and then it’s sort of asking questions around what are you feeling worried about? And I can sort of share some of what their worries might be and whatever that might be as a parent, you just remain curious about that and exploring. And the idea is that you just wanting to find out more and more detail about that worry and be really curious about that worry. So that you might have all the answers that they are seeking. But as a parent you can sort of say, I’m a bit worried about that, too. And that’s a good question. I’m not sure the answer to that. Maybe that’s something we can have a look at together because, yeah, I heard something similar and I’m not sure if it’s true or not. So owning some of that lack of knowledge we sometimes have as well. So that tends to be how I would recommend that sort of conversation going is you can just initiate it with acknowledging some of the things that are happening and even your own worries and open that up to give permission that we’re going to talk about this then really following and being curious about what children are saying. And so just asking some of those open ended questions just to help you understand how they’re going so that you can sort of respond to that.
Sophie Guy [00:18:10] And what about parents and their mental health right now? There’s obviously a whole spectrum of experiences that people are having. But we do keep hearing about how in a lot of people are feeling a lot of anxiety and there are some very troubling things happening. People are losing their jobs. There’s a lot of uncertainty. So in thinking about having these conversations, is there anything that parents could be mindful of in terms of their own state of anxiety or their own mood in opening up conversations and supporting their children at this time?
Brad Morgan [00:18:49] For parents in particular, if they are struggling with some of their own mental health difficulties, we know that what that means is generally changes how we feel about ourselves, but also how we relate to each other in a family. And so going back to what I was talking about before around two, really responding to what children are seeing and hearing and feeling. And so the same sort of message, actually labelling some of those changes or exploring what children have noticed about those changes as well. So what have you noticed about our family that’s changed? I know I’ve been a bit worried about things a lot more. And what that means is sometimes about a bit more snappy as a parent, if that’s the case, or sometimes I feel like I just need to go and escape in my room for a while. Or have you noticed me doing that? Just helping children feel like it’s not something that they’re causing. And there’s a lot of families sort of balancing a lot of stress. And that includes the stress of the relationships in the family and the stress of doing school at home, the stress of managing all the tension that can pop up between siblings and between family members. And so providing some explanation around that to children is just making sure that they go. It’s not that I feel like it’s their fault that this is happening and that those changes, because that’s often what we hear from a lot of children is they do feel like they caused their parents to be unwell or struggling with mental health.
[00:20:12] And sometimes parents have expressed sometimes it feels like that, too. But it’s not actually the case. It’s actually the context that we’re living in is making this really tricky for all of us and helping children make sense of it. And actually just saying that as a family and having some open communication about it, there’s a lot of resources out there. And I think we’ve got some on our website as well, where we’ve learnt from families around how they have started conversations and how that’s helped. And I think that’s something that we can both learn from this. Some families that have been through some pretty tough stuff and have been going through some tough stuff for quite some time. So we’ve got some really good knowledge and wisdom that other families have shared with us as an organisation. And that’s what we’ve used to help us develop some resources. But I think also, while we’re connecting with each other, is actually reflecting on a family. What struggles have we been through together and even sharing some of those stories with each other in the household and with the family that we had some pretty tough times during this period? Or what did we do and what was helpful in that time that we can share? But I think that’s what I’ve noticed in my own family and in social media and things. I think people are really being proactive about sharing, you know, practical things are and how we’re managing this or some cool tools, things to do with kids, those sorts of things. So I think people are problem solving this.
Sophie Guy [00:21:33] Yeah. I mean, looking at the different sources of information that are out there, there’s a lot of agreement on what kids need. And I think for a while there, I was thinking, you know, this is on you and you haven’t been in this situation before. Do we know what to suggest or what to do? But it seems as though there is a lot of tried and tested principles and understandings that are still really useful for now. And I wanted to pick up on you touched on routines before. And this is a message that’s coming through about how to support children. And I know it’s an important one that comes through in our work at Emerging Minds. Could you talk a bit about how can parents maintain routines while children are at home and everyone’s home together for extended periods of time?
Brad Morgan [00:22:24] I think some things that can be taught are practical and useful just for families to be thinking about is. What does a normal before this happened week looked like for us? And to even sit down with children and think about so what are the key things we really want to keep going in our family or what are some new things we can introduce that might not have been in a family that we can use during this time? So things like consistent sort of bedtime routines, consistent wake up routines are fairly important. As much as we might want to be doing big sleep ins. And that’s ok too sometimes as well. But sort of trying to get some predictability just helps children feel a bit more secure. Doesn’t need to be sort of, you know, super regimented type routines because there can be so difficulties as well. But what are some of those key things that make life seem a bit more predictable for children.
Sophie Guy [00:23:16] Probably the final point I wanted to pick up on was around media and news. I think I’m not alone in consuming a lot more media at the moment. And I’m just wondering if there’s any suggestions around monitoring that or any things to be mindful around the impact of news about the Coronavirus on children’s’ social and emotional wellbeing right now?
Brad Morgan [00:23:45] Yeah, yeah. I think it’s, um, I sort of talk about almost like what you call media hygiene. Good to be thinking about it. And that’s for ourselves and showing that to our children as well, but also helping monitor that for children. I think, as you said, I think we’re all looking at media a lot more. And there’s some importance of that for us as well as that we need to know what’s happening on the outside world and know what important things we might need to be changing. We need to be looking at that continually as well. But I think some ways to do that in a healthy way is to limit the number of sources of information you are getting access to and pick two or three reliable sources. And maybe even just thinking about is there a particular time of day that I’m going to look at that and allow myself to do that? Because it’s important that you do. But I think at the moment, because we tend to be wearing and having devices on us and I tend to ping and alertness to things, it’s really hard, particularly when you’re worried about things not to jump home and have a look immediately. And what that sort of means is that a big part of our day is that we’re really distracted by the devices and the news that are in our lives, which I think, as I was mentioning before around play is maybe that’s the time as a parent you can turn off completely or put it in another room. And really deliberately, consciously switch off from it for a while so that you can focus on other things and know that it’s going to be waiting there when you go back to it with any news items and things like that as well.
[00:25:19] And I think that’s just the simple way that it does work. So that’s just probably the one big thing, I think, that’s really important around managing our own media but also that’s a sign I guess children will be looking at to us around our own behaviour as well. So if we’re struggling and I think that’s part of our own anxiety, not to be off those devices, to look at the news, it’s possible that children are feeling the same way so we can sort of show them how we’re doing, that it helps them to sort of say it’s actually okay, we don’t need to be looking at them all the time and maybe we all have some time off from them for a little bit and just do something else that we enjoy doing.
Sophie Guy [00:25:57] I think we might leave it there. I think that that’s a good place to finish up. So thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate it.
Brad Morgan [00:26:05] No worries. Thank you.
Sophie Guy [00:26:07] Thanks for listening to the special episode on Children and the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit the Emerging Minds website to access a curated selection of resources, including videos, factsheets and tips to find more ways of supporting children and parents during this time.
Narrator [00:26:25] Visit our Web site at www.emergingminds.com.au to access a range of resources to assist your practise brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health. Led by merging lines, the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Programme.