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Listen to children and young people’s coronavirus fears, says Bishop of Gloucester

13 May 2020

Children’s lives ‘turned upside down’ by the pandemic


THE Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, has criticised the “lack of national attention being given to the voices of children and young people” during the coronavirus crisis.

The Bishop is backing UNICEF’s campaign #TeamChildren to raise awareness of young people’s mental-health issues and provide a listening ear and support.

She said on Wednesday: “I would love to see one of the daily government updates each week have a child and young-people focus, and it would be good to see children participating. I was, therefore, really happy to sign UNICEF’s open letter written by young people, asking the Government to ‘speak directly to young people across the UK in a special age-appropriate broadcast’.”

UNICEF’s open letter states: “This pandemic has closed our schools, cancelled our exams, shut down our play spaces and separated us from our friends and family. In the blink of an eye, the world we knew has disappeared. We’re worried about what this crisis means for our future.”

Recent research suggests that millions of children are struggling with mental illness, owing to the pandemic. A study published by the charity Benenden Health on Monday found that almost one third of parents in the UK (29 per cent) had seen a negative change in their children since the lockdown began (News, 23 March). Of the 2455 people who responded to the Censuswide survey between 15 and 20 April, 1002 were parents, 40 per cent of whom reported that they had never talked about mental health with their children.

Bishop Treweek continued: “This viral pandemic has turned the lives of children upside down and is having a big impact on them, not only regarding their education, but also in how they play, live their friendships, develop their gifts and interests, and think about the future.

“As adults, we have a lot to learn from children and young people, and sometimes we simply need to create spaces to listen and be committed to a culture of ‘us’ which is about people of every age and background being valued and having a say.”

Another study published by World Vision UK last month suggested that one third of children in the UK had felt lonely since the Government closed schools.

The YouGov poll was carried out from 27 to 30 March. Of 1688 parents with children aged five to 18, more than one third (36 per cent) said that their children had told them that they were lonely because they were unable to go to school.

One third of parents (32 per cent) had noticed negative changes in the behaviour of their children, such as tantrums, meltdowns, nightmares, stomach aches, fighting, and crying.

Molly and Shea with their mother, Ruth

The global advocacy leader for World Vision, Daniela Buzducea, said: “Children experience a crisis like this differently to adults. They pick up on anxiety around them and get destabilised by dramatic changes in their daily routines and strict restrictions on their movements. . . Many begin to act out their tension through challenging behaviour or withdraw into their shells.”

Richard and Rebekah Miller said that their children, Oliver, aged seven, and Isabel, six, had been struggling with the restrictions. “Oliver has been up and down like a rollercoaster during the past couple of weeks,” Mrs Millar said. “Sometimes happy, sometimes deathly quiet, sometimes violent, and huge temper tantrums. Isabel suffers quietly. She struggles without the routine of school and has had stomach aches on and off when she is anxious.”

Oliver had also expressed fear about death, she said. “Oliver is a reflective child, and worries about a lot of things. He takes in information and will often ask questions regarding death, albeit very nervously.”

More than one in five children (22 per cent) were concerned that a family member or close friend could die from catching the virus. This fear was more common among younger children (aged five to 11). Younger children were also the most likely to tell parents that they were lonely and missing friends and family, and more likely to become clingy, cry, and have tantrums and disturbed sleep.

The head of church engagement for World Vision UK, Ruth Tormey, said that both of her children had been scared to begin with. Her son, Shea, is seven. Her daughter, Molly, who is ten, has an autoimmune disease and suffers from asthma.

“Molly is ill and knows that she is ill — so has been scared and worried about contracting the virus. She was having nightmares. . . Shea is continuing to be laid-back as he normally is. He doesn’t have any underlying health conditions that would lead him to be more anxious.”

Mrs Tormey, who now works from home, and her husband, Adam, who remains in work as a firefighter, have set aside “devotional time” with the children each morning. “We have tried to use the grounding of our faith to reassure the children. We read a passage from the children’s Bible, watch a video about the passage on YouTube, and have a Q and A session. The kids are really engaged.”

Both sets of parents said that being honest with children and keeping up communication with family and friends was vital to combat loneliness.

Oliver and Isabel Millar

Mrs Tormey said: “I would advise parents to be honest and open with their children about what is happening. Pray with them regularly, play worship loudly, and sing and jump around with them.”

Mrs Millar said: “To any parent with a scared child, we would say, let them know it is OK. Be honest with them, answer questions with fact, enjoy your extra time with them. . . The kids understand and accept a lot more than we realise. Talk with them, let them vent their fears, and let them know it will come to an end.”

Mr Millar said: “No question is silly, and laughing and telling jokes always helps the kids to relax; the person who said laughter is the best medicine is a genius, even when I am told off for the poor joke-quality.”

Ms Buzducea said: “It is important that parents find out what their children have heard and listen to their concerns. They should talk calmly and explain what is happening in a way appropriate to their children’s level of understanding.”

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