How a child or young person reacts can vary according to their age, how they understand information and communicate, their previous experiences, and how they typically cope with stress.
During this time, it’s important that you support and take care of your family’s mental health – there are lots of things you can do, and additional support is available if you need it.
Helping children and young people cope with stress
There are some key points you can consider about how to support your child or young person, including:
Listen and acknowledge: Children and young people may respond to stress in different ways. Signs may be emotional (for example, they may be upset, distressed, anxious, angry or agitated), behavioural (for example, they may become more clingy or more withdrawn), or physical (for example, they may experience stomach aches).
Look out for any changes in their behaviour. Children and young people may feel less anxious if they are able to express and communicate their feelings in a safe and supportive environment. Children and young people who communicate differently to their peers may rely on you to interpret their feelings. Listen to them, acknowledge their concern and give them extra love and attention if they need it.
MindEd is a free online educational resource on children and young people’s mental health for all adults, which can support parents and carers through these exceptional circumstances.
Provide clear information about the situation: Children and young people want to feel assured that their parents and carers can keep them safe. One of the best ways to achieve this is by talking openly about what is happening and providing honest answers to any questions they have. Explain what is being done to keep them and their loved ones safe, including any actions they can take to help, such as washing their hands more often than usual. Use words and explanations that they can understand. There are resources available to help you do this, including the Children’s Commissioner’s Children’s Guide to Coronavirus, or the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) have produced a storybook developed by and for children around the world affected by coronavirus (COVID-19).
Make sure you use reliable sources of information such as GOV.UK or the NHS website – there is a lot of misleading information from other sources that can create stress for you and your family. It will not always be possible to provide answers to all the questions that children and young people may ask, or to address all their concerns, so focus on listening and acknowledging their feelings to help them feel supported.
Be aware of your own reactions: Remember that children and young people often take their emotional cues from the important adults in their lives, so how you respond to the situation is very important. It is important to manage your own emotions and remain calm, listen to and acknowledge children and young people’s concerns, speak kindly to them, and answer any questions they have honestly. For further information on how to look after your own mental wellbeing during the pandemic, see the guidance on how to look after your own mental health and wellbeing or visit Every Mind Matters.
Connect regularly: If it is necessary for you and your children to be in different locations to normal (for example, due to staying at home in different locations or hospitalisation) make sure you still have regular and frequent contact via the phone or video calls with them. Try to help your child understand what arrangements are being made for them and why in simple terms. Support safe ways for children and young people to maintain social interaction with their friends, for example via phone or video calls.
Create a new routine: Life is changing for all of us for a while. Routine gives children and young people an increased feeling of safety in the context of uncertainty, so think about how to develop a new routine, especially if they are not at school:
- make a plan for the day or week that includes time for learning, playing and relaxing
- if they have to stay home from school, ask teachers what you can do to support continued learning at home. The Department for Education have published a list of recommended online educational resources for home schooling
- encourage maintaining a balance between being on and offline and discover new ideas for activities to do from home. The Children’s Commissioner guide signposts to some ideas to help fight boredom
- children and young people ideally need to be active for 60 minutes a day, which can be more difficult when spending longer periods of time indoors. Plan time outside if you can do so safely or see Change4Life for ideas for indoor games and activities
- don’t forget that sleep is important for mental and physical health, so try to keep to existing bedtime routines
Limit exposure to media and talk more about what they have seen and heard: Like adults, children and young people may become more distressed if they see repeated coverage about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the media. A complete news blackout is also rarely helpful as they are likely to find out from other sources, such as online or through friends. Try to avoid turning the television off or closing web pages when children or young people come into the room. This can pique their interest to find out what is happening and their imagination can take over. Instead, consider limiting the amount of exposure you and your family have to media coverage.
Young people will also hear things from friends and get information from social media. Talk to them about what is happening and ask them what they have heard. Try to answer their questions honestly and reassure them appropriately.
How children and young people of different ages may react
All children and young people are different, but there are some common ways in which different age groups may react to a situation like the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Understanding these may help you to support your family. The common reactions to distress will fade over time for most children and young people, though could return if they see or hear reminders of what happened.
For infants to 2-year olds
Infants may become more easily distressed. They may cry more than usual or want to be held and cuddled more.
For 3 to 6-year olds
Preschool and nursery children may return to behaviours they have outgrown. For example, toileting accidents, bed-wetting, or being frightened about being separated from their parents or carers. They may also have tantrums or difficulty sleeping.
For 7 to 10-year olds
Older children may feel sad, angry, or afraid. Peers may share false information, but parents or carers can correct the misinformation. Older children may focus on details of the situation and want to talk about it all the time, or not want to talk about it at all. They may have trouble concentrating.
For preteens and teenagers
Some preteens and teenagers respond to worrying situations by acting out. This could include reckless driving, and alcohol or drug use. Others may become afraid to leave the home. They may cut back on how much time they connect with their friends. They can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions and feel unable to talk about them. Their emotions may lead to increased arguing and even fighting with siblings, parents, carers or other adults. They may have concerns about how the school closures and exam cancellations will affect them.
Children and young people who care for others
Some children and young people may also have existing caring responsibilities for adults or siblings. They may be anxious about what will happen if the person they care for becomes unwell, or what will happen if they themselves become unwell and are unable to support the person they care for. Even if they don’t currently act as a carer, it is possible that they may become one if they are in a household with one adult.
Planning with your child or young person what will happen if you or another member of the family they care for or may need to care for becomes unwell, including contact details for others who can step in and support them, will help to reduce anxiety.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic may lead to some individuals experiencing bullying, discrimination or harassment, for example due to their ethnicity or nationality, or perceived illness. It is important to check that your children and young people are not experiencing bullying or bullying others.
Remind your children and young people that everyone deserves to be safe wherever they are – including online and at home. Bullying is always wrong, and we should each do our part to spread kindness and support each other. If they have been called names or bullied, they should feel comfortable telling an adult whom they trust.
For more help and advice resources, please see the Anti-Bullying Alliance website.
Experiencing grief or bereavement
Whenever it happens, experiencing the loss of a friend or loved one can be an extremely difficult and challenging time. Children and young people may not be able to say goodbye in the way they would have wanted and it may be harder to connect with their usual support networks.
Grief affects children and young people in different ways depending on their age, their level of understanding, and the changes the death means for their daily life. They often feel waves of powerful emotions such as sadness, guilt, shock and anger, which they may struggle to express. It is very common for their behaviour to change and for them to worry a lot about other people.
It can be challenging to support a child when you are grieving yourself. Listening carefully, answering questions honestly in an age appropriate way, continuing routines where possible, and providing lots of love and support will help. The NHS has advice about grief and the support available, and the Childhood Bereavement Network has information and links to national and local support organisations.
Where to get further support
If you are worried about your or your child or young person’s symptoms, see the NHS website. If you have no internet access, you should call NHS 111.
If you are worried about your child or young person’s mental health, seek help from a professional. You may have services attached to your child or young person’s school or college who can help. You could also contact your GP, or look up information on children and young people’s mental health services on your local CCG website or on the NHS website.
In a medical emergency call 999. This phone line should be used when someone is seriously ill or injured and their life is at risk. A mental health emergency should be taken as seriously as a physical health emergency and is a situation where your child or young person requires immediate professional care. For more advice on where to get support for a mental health crisis please see this NHS page.
If you do not feel safe at home there is help and support available to you and your family. The household isolation instruction as a result of coronavirus does not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse.
Abuse is unacceptable in any situation, no matter what stresses you or others are under. If you or others are in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police – the police will continue to respond to emergency calls.
The Home Office has produced guidance on further support available during the coronavirus pandemic for those who feel at risk of abuse, and to help perpetrators to change their behaviours.
Helplines and websites for your child and or young person
If your child or young person would like to speak to someone anonymously, they could try calling a helpline or visiting websites such as ChildLine and The Mix.
ChildLine provides a helpline for any child with a problem. It comforts, advises and protects.
- call 0800 1111 any time for free
- have an online chat with a counsellor
- check out the message boards
The Mix provides a free confidential helpline and online service that aims to find young people the best help, whatever the problem.
- call 0808 808 4994 for free – lines are open from 11am to 11pm every day
- access the online community
- email The Mix
Shout provides free, confidential support, 24/7 via text for anyone at crisis anytime, anywhere.
- text SHOUT to 85258 in the UK to text with a trained Crisis Volunteer
- text with someone who is trained and will provide active listening and collaborative problem-solving