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The tell-tale signs that children may not be coping and how to help.
Panic. Stress. Anxiety. As adults we understand these words only too well, especially given recent events, such as bushfires in Australia and the rapid onslaught of COVID-19 around the world.
For children, however, these emotions can be especially frightening, with still developing language skills making them unable to process and express what’s going on inside.
As Director of Pedagogical Leadership Early Start and Academic Director of The Early Years program, University of Wollongong (UOW) Associate Professor Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett has developed deep insight into how young children react to stress, and what strategies we can put in place to help them.
"This is an exceptionally vulnerable time for Australian children,' says Neilsen-Hewett. "They have just come out of this period of prolonged exposure stress due to the bushfires, which means they already have a heightened generalised fear that the world is a scary place. The news of COVID-19 just reinforces that perception, which leads to a potential risk of cumulative stress that children are not yet equipped to manage."
Cumulative stress in children can manifest in many ways, especially behaviourally, with clinginess, temper tantrums, disrupted sleep patterns and limited attention spans all tell-tale signs that children may not be coping with what's going on around them.
"Regression is also very common. So a child who wasn't wetting the bed any more starts wetting the bed again; or one who had moved beyond thumb sucking, starts to suck down again. We might also see a child's speech that was really developing, regress back to simple, telegraphic speech. Playing games such as 'hospitals' or around the themes of fire or disaster is also a way children may outwardly demonstrate their inner world."
So, what can parents do during times like these to assist their children, while also keeping things in check for themselves?
First and foremost, particularly when we're talking about young children, it's vitally important to really limit their level of exposure. Children can be exposed in two ways. Either directly, where a family member might be sick, or vicariously through the media or by overhearing conversations amongst adults. Be aware that young children find it really hard to make sense of what they see and hear, so taking breaks from the TV and radio, or limiting conversations with other adults to after children's bedtime is especially important at this time.
Children take great comfort in the familiar, so creating a safe, stable and supportive environment is one of the best things you can do for your children right now. Try not to introduce too many new things and take comfort in what you already have in place, such as meal and bedtimes. There may be a need to provide extra warnings, such as time to pack up or have dinner, but avoid any major changes to your normal routine.
There has been a lot of discussion about resources, such as toilet paper and basic supplies, but we are very well placed in Australia with access to resources. Reassuring children that they will have what they need can help them feel safe. It may not be the dinner we want, but we will have dinner.
Though these conversations can be especially challenging, it's important to be honest when children ask difficult and pointed questions. For example, will Grandma die? Obviously how you frame your answers depend on the age and sensitivity of your children, but it's also okay to say, I don't know.
One of the wonderful things about children is that they love learning and expanding their skills as they grow. Teaching children how to protect themselves and their friends is a positive and practical step you can do right now, especially around health-related behaviour. The Wiggles hand-washing song is fun and simple and brings some laughter into the conversation. Mouth covering and general hygiene is important throughout life in general, so teaching these skills now offers us a great opportunity.
"I think as parents it's really important for us to recognise what's controllable and what's outside our control," says Neilsen-Hewett thoughtfully. "This will also help with our own level of stress. What we can do is control the flow of information to children and reassure them that the decisions that are being made are in their best interest."
"This is also a good time to slow things down, as we normally live in such a hurried existence. It's really about finding comfort in the pause and celebrating that for a moment. Which is an important life and developmental lesson for all children."