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Children show an increase in mental health difficulties during the COVID-19 Lockdown

Posted 22nd June 2020

New research[1] from the University of Oxford shows that parents / carers of children aged 4-10 reported that during lockdown they have seen increases in their child’s emotional difficulties. This includes children feeling unhappy, worried, being clingy and experiencing physical symptoms, such as tummy aches, associated with worry. Parents also reported their children’s behaviour had got worse over time – seeing more behaviours such as temper tantrums and a refusal to do what is asked. Sound familiar?

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought new and, at times, overwhelming challenges for all sections of society, including families. Throughout this period, children are more reliant than ever on parents to set the emotional tone – to help them make sense of what is happening. Parents have a unique role in helping their children manage their own worries and feelings. Why has their world suddenly been turned upside down and when will it get back to normal? Yet parents are under so many stresses and strains themselves – this is a tall order. Parents may well be facing bereavement, loss of family and social networks they rely on for parenting, job insecurity and financial worries. Plus the endless juggle of work and childcare which has intensified, in particular for women.

Talking to parents it seems that after the initial relief that lockdown brought for some families, many children are now missing their friends and the relationships, routines and structure that school provides. At The Bridge Foundation, we’ve been talking to parents and children on the ‘phone and through video calls during this time, rapidly adjusting the way we work to support families. Something I’ve been hearing time and again, is that children – in particular primary school children – are missing playing with their friends. As the educator Maria Monterssori reminds us, play is the work of the child. Play has an intrinsic value and is essential for children in many ways.[2] It supports brain development, builds self-regulation, enhances social skills and allows children to process their experiences. As schools and nurseries start to re-open for pre-school, reception and Year 1 and 6 pupils it will be helpful to put play at the heart of their curriculum. Giving space for children to play, to reconnect and to show rather than tell what their preoccupations are, will support their mental health.

Yet children are less playful when under strain or anxious. Parents and teachers have told me that some children are happy to be back at school, whilst others are struggling and finding the changes harder to adapt to. We need to be patient and take a child-centred and developmental approach, recognising that some children will need more help or support to transition back. They may need more help to play. 

Professor Cathy Creswell, co-lead of the research, said, “Prioritising the mental health of children and young people throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond is critical.” At The Bridge Foundation we are supporting families and schools to make this a reality – we are working with Bristol schools to make sure that we can support children’s mental health at this very difficult time & so that we can help families who may be struggling.  We fundraise so that we can offer schools a subsidised service that is free to the children, parents & teachers who use our services in schools, supporting schools in some of Bristol’s most deprived areas: https://www.bridgefoundation.org.uk/donate-now/

If you’re looking for support for yourself as a parent / carer, we also offer parent consultations through our fee-paying service, where we can help you to understand your child’s mental health & to find ways of supporting your child at this time, whatever difficulties your child is experiencing and however they are expressing this.  We have a team of specialist child and adolescent therapists who work with parents & carers, currently working online & by phone, which means that we can offer support wherever you are in the country.  We also offer therapy to children & young people up to & including age 25, as well as for adults, couples & for parents & infants.  See: bridgefoundation.org.uk / tel 0117 9424510 / email info@bridgefoundation.org.uk

Interested in finding out more about this research into children’s mental health?  The survey is still open, and researchers are keen for parents and carers to share their experiences to shape future advice and services. To add your voice, go to  www.cospaceoxford.com/survey.


[1] Early findings from the Co-SPACE study

[2] See Music’s 2016 book, Nurturing Natures for a full discussion on the evidence on the benefits of play