AS LOCKDOWN eased, I was at last able to take my young grandson to the park. He made his way over to the slide where a little girl was waiting her turn. I was prepared for him (in true toddler fashion) to elbow his way past her to have the first go, but, instead, both children stood rooted to the ground, simply staring at each other.
Later on, I reflected that they were just months old when the pandemic began. They have not had the opportunity to interact with others of the same age, to learn how to make friends, or take turns. The lockdown has been life as they know it: they’ve never known anything different.
Family life has effectively been put under a magnifying glass during Covid-19, where all facets of life have been intensified. Despite expectations, it has not all been bad news. Research carried out by the Children’s Commissioner has shown that, for a few children, there may have been some positives.
For those with a stable family environment, the elimination of “everyday” worries (anxiety about appearance, bullying, their social lives) meant that their stress levels decreased during lockdown.
But, for a significant majority, the challenges have felt overwhelming. Living together 24/7 has aggravated existing tensions, while stressed parents have managed the impossible task of both home schooling and home working, or ridden the rollercoaster of the teenage years, without their usual support systems in place.
UNDERSTANDABLY, these pressures have taken their toll. (I am sure there are many parents who will think twice now about grounding their teenagers for a month.) One of the biggest challenges facing our young people has been school closures and the disruption to their education.
Hot on the heels of this has been the dislocation of friendships. Friendships are a vital part of growing up, and play an essential part in children’s social and emotional development.
Apart from the obvious enjoyment and camaraderie of being with friends, these relationships allow children to learn more about themselves, develop their social skills, and give them a sense of self-worth and confidence.
One study of young people in Bristol found that 63 per cent struggled to cope with the reduction in social contact, agreeing that no amount of phone calls or video chats could replace truly connecting and being with a friend. In fact, children who feel isolated from friends are four times as likely to have low well-being as those who do not.
While two-year-olds may not have had the opportunity of learning to take turns on the slide, and primary-school children have missed games of tag in the playground and giggling in the dark on sleepovers, it is our teenagers who have found isolation particularly hard.
The teenage years are an especially important time for relationships to develop, including new romantic liaisons, and the restrictions have had an impact on this. Since teenagers tend to thrive in larger groups, many have been left feeling disconnected and alone.
Saavi, aged 15, was not able to see her schoolfriends for many months, owing to the lockdown. She said: “I actually cried when I heard we weren’t going to be going back to school this term. The worst part of lockdown for me was not being able to hang out with my friends. I missed them so much.”
Research has revealed that lockdown has had a “funnelling effect” on friendships: circles of friends narrow down, owing to the sheer effort required to keep in touch. This has caused some young people to find themselves left out in the cold without an all-important “bestie”.
ALL this has taken its toll on our young people’s emotional well-being. In one study, researchers found that, whereas in July 2017 one in nine children was experiencing mental-health difficulty, this figure rose to one in six in July 2020.
A growing body of evidence suggests that the fallout with regard to well-being could be significant and long-term. Even when No. 10 announces that restrictions are over, it is unrealistic to think that life will instantly return to normal.
In fact, after so much change, many children are finding the transition out of lockdown more difficult than going into it in the first place. With stress levels already high because of the huge amount of change that they have had to contend with, they have less capacity to manage things that they would normally take in their stride.
But the good news for parents is that we are the ones best placed to help children to navigate this difficult season. Here are some of the practical things that we can do to give them support and reassurance:
- Re-establish routines. Routines give children a sense of security. During lockdown, these will inevitably have changed, but now is a good time to bring back family ground rules about the use of screens, mealtimes, and bedtimes.
- Take small steps. As clubs and activities recommence, we can take off the pressure on our children by encouraging them to rejoin their activities gradually, maybe one at a time, doing the things that they enjoy most with like-minded friends.
- Listen and empathise. Keep communication open, and offer reassurance. Teenagers will typically open up on their terms; so seize opportunities to talk when you can, ask open questions, listen to what their concerns really are, and show empathy. Remember that sometimes the issues bothering them won’t be what we expect.
- Help to manage your children’s stress reactions. If possible, try to eke out some one-on-one time, and do things that help them to relax — play a game, bake a cake, go for a walk or cycle ride, watch Netflix. If they are feeling anxious, encourage them to take deep breaths and count to ten.
- Find things to be grateful for. Every evening, ask everyone to think of one positive thing that they are thankful for: for example, a fun game of snakes and ladders, a new TikTok dance, finishing a maths project, or fixing a dripping tap.
BEFORE we add the damaging effects of Covid-19 to the list of things that keep us up at night, it is important to recognise that they are not a prophecy of our children’s future. We are seeing normal reactions to an abnormal set of life circumstances.
As all-encompassing as the pandemic has been, we must remember that it is one chapter of our children’s lives, not the whole story. With the right support, they have every chance of coming through the other side happy, healthy, and even having learnt something from it.
For our children, it won’t be the only difficult circumstance that life throws at them: they have a lifetime of challenges ahead — broken hearts, testing jobs, ill health, dreams that have been trampled on, friends that let them down.
So, we can take heart by recognising that, although the pandemic has been incredibly challenging for young people, it has also been an opportunity for growth. Research shows that the important quality of resilience — the ability to bounce back from setbacks — can really only be learnt in challenging times.
That is certainly something that St Paul would agree with. As wrote in Romans 5.3-4: “Even in times of trouble we have a joyful confidence, knowing that our pressures will develop in us patient endurance. And patient endurance will refine our character, and proven character leads us back to hope.”
Katharine Hill is UK Director of Care for the Family and the author of A Mind of Their Own: Building your child’s emotional well-being in a post-pandemic world, published by Muddy Pearl at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70).