Lockdowns + Children’s Mental Health
The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a worldwide emergency response in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus and the rapidly rising mortality rates. One of the most effective methods of achieving this has been through enforced social isolation and lockdowns, but these measures come with a cost. Whilst Australia has been relatively successful at keeping Covid-19 under control with the use of strict lockdowns, including school and childcare closures at certain times, the ongoing uncertainty of the situation has prompted discussions about the negative effect that lockdowns have on the mental health of younger children.
What the Research Says
The current Covid-19 crisis, with its dangerous and immediate threat to life, has prompted a spate of pandemic research, mainly focusing on physical health, vaccinations, and best practice to reduce the spread. (1) Whilst this focus is to be expected, more recently there has been a growing body of evidence researching concerns about the effect that social isolation and lockdowns are having on the mental health of our children. (2) Research has shown that social isolation can trigger feelings of uncertainty, despair and fear. (1) Fear of catching the virus, boredom, and frustration can also bring feelings of anxiety, obsessive behaviours, and delusional thoughts. (1) Evidence so far shows that lockdowns, school closures, and social isolation are associated with considerable harms to children’s health and wellbeing. (2)
In Australia, a national lockdown was enforced from March to May of 2020, with schools closed (except for the children of essential workers), and adults working from home if possible. In Victoria, a second much longer lockdown occurred from July until October after a second wave of infections caused concern, and then another two weeks in late May, 2021. (3) A report by the Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health examined the impact of these lockdowns on the mental health of children. This report found that children were generally very resilient, with 88-95% of children who experienced only the first lockdown being reported as having ‘good mental health and wellbeing’. In comparison, 69-89% of the children who experienced the second lockdown reported having ‘good mental health and wellbeing’, but with decreasing ability to manage emotions and reduced feelings of positive emotions as the lockdown progressed. (3) One in four children who experienced the 2nd lockdown experienced ‘higher than average’ levels of anxiety symptoms, and 12-36% of children were clingier, needing more attention from their caregiver, and, in some cases, not letting them out of sight. (3)
Changing Health Behaviours
Human beings are social creatures, and children, just like adults, need positive social interactions to help them develop a healthy socioemotional well-being. (1) Social isolation has led to multiple changes in health behaviours that may, in turn, negatively effect the socioemotional wellbeing of the child. (2) Unsurprisingly, with young children stuck at home whilst parents try to work form home, children’s screen time has increased. (2) There is also some evidence to show that lockdowns have led to changes in diets, with an increase in chips, soft drinks, and number of meals, as well as a decrease in fruit and vegetable consumption for children. (2)
Manifestations of Anxiety and Depression in Young Children
- Disruptive behaviour
- School refusal
- Obsessive behaviours
- Sleep disturbances
- Lack of motivation
Strategies to Help Children Cope
Drawing on past research into the effect of social isolation on the mental health of children, here is a list of evidence-based strategies to limit the socioemotional impact that lockdowns may have on our children.
Have a set daily routine
Children need structure in their lives to thrive. Lockdowns, especially with school and childcare closures, can interrupt the daily routine, adding to an already unsettling time. When possible, keeping a routine, even if different from the ‘normal’ routine, will help children to feel more secure and safe. (1)
Identify and recognise your own emotions
Children feed off the emotions of the adults around them. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty, fear, and sadness for so many people and it has been shown that it is important for adults to have the ability to recognise, name and regulate their own emotions as this will help children to do the same. (1)
3. Listen to their thoughts and feelings
Giving your child space to talk and express their concerns is crucial to help adults identify their own children’s issues, and more accurately offer them appropriate tools to help them feel safe and decrease their negative emotions. (1)
4. Observe any changes in behaviour
Changes in behaviour are good indicatiors of how a child is dealing with stressful situations. Parents can use these changes to prompt open and warm conversations with their children to help show them that their feelings are normal. (1)
5. Pack a lunchbox for children
Sticking to regular snack and mealtimes by packing a lunchbox for the day can help strengthen the routine, and minimise the number of snacks children expect. It also helps parents to ensure that they’re including some healthy food options every day, rather than relying on a last-minute dash to the pantry when their child gets hungry.
6. Limit children’s exposure to the media, but don’t avoid the pandemic all together
The media and social media has been shown to greatly influence mood, emotions, and behaviour. (1) The current situation may trigger feelings of sadness or anxiety for children, and parents should be careful with what they expose their children to, however, this doesn’t mean that we should completely avoid pandemic-related news and discussions with our children. (1) Efforts should be made to include children in age-appropriate discussion on Covid-19.
7. Eat a high-quality, wholefood diet
A Mediterranean-style diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, seafood, whole grains, and legumes, has been shown to support mental health in adults and children. Although the exact mechanisms by which this happens are not clear, it is thought that the gut microbiome and the body’s inflammatory response play a key role. (4)
Many families continue to feel the disruption and uncertainty that the Covid-19 pandemic brings. The unpredictability and threat of snap lockdowns is likely to continue for a while, so it is more important than ever to seek out strategies to help the health and wellbeing of our children. (3) For families with children who continue to display emotional or behavioural difficulties, professional intervention is encouraged.
Written By Clare Carrick
Clare Carrick is an accredited nutritionist whose special interests involve gut health, diet and its effect on mental health, early childhood nutrition, and the impact that diet during pregnancy can have on the health of the offspring. Clare studied a BHSc (nutrition & health promotion) at Deakin University, and completed an internship at the Food & Mood Centre, which specialises in nutritional psychiatry.
Although Clare enjoys getting deep in the science behind nutrition, she is also all about balance! Life is busy for her with two daughters under five and a growing nutrition business and, in all honesty, coffee is often her 1st thought when the alarm goes off in the morning! Whilst the abundance and diversity of the Mediterranean diet is definitely a favourite way of eating for Clare, perhaps her favourite part of it is the bit where she gets to sink into the couch at the end of a long day with a glass of red and know that the polyphenols are doing good things for her microbes.