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Supporting children and young people of different ages

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.

Further information

Preschool and nursery children

Preschool and nursery children may return to behaviours they had outgrown. For example, toileting accidents, bed-wetting, being frightened of the dark or being separated from their parents or carers. They may also have tantrums or difficulty sleeping.

Young children will be helped by increased emotional and physical care, routines and a tolerant and more accepting approach towards their behaviour. Encourage them to express themselves through their play where they wish to do this.

Primary aged children

Primary aged children may feel sad, angry, or afraid. They may show this through physical symptoms such as headaches or tummy aches. 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 and may seem preoccupied. They may have reduced interest in usual activities and interests. Some children may be upset by having to leave primary school without being able to say goodbye to their friends and teachers and worry about starting at a new school.

It is helpful to encourage children to express their anxieties through asking open ended questions about what they are feeling and thinking. Ensure that you first manage your own worries and anxiety, adopt an honest and accurate approach adjusting the amount of factual information you give according to a child’s age. The goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety rather to help the child manage it. Express positive but realistic expectations for outcomes and problem solve with the child; they may have their own solutions. The key to working with children who are anxious is to contain their fears and anxiety, not to ignore or dismiss them. Children and young people will benefit from being able to expresses their anxieties within a containing, safe and supportive context and to receive advice and support that helps them to better understand and manage their feelings. The British Psychological Society and Place2Be have produced helpful resources to support parents/carers with this.

Covibook is an interactive resource designed to help children aged 7 and under to explain and draw the emotions that they might be experiencing. Nosy crow have produced a downloadable book about Coronavirus which can be shared with children aged 7 and above. The BBC have also produced a resource specifically for helping children to develop skills for emotional regulation. Additional resources for supporting children and young people with worries about COVID-19 are also available from Reading and Oxford University.

Secondary aged children and young people at college

Some preteens and teenagers respond to worrying situations by acting out or by becoming withdrawn or a combination of both. While adolescence is typically characterised as a time of greater emotional volatility, some teenagers may exhibit a marked change in their behaviour and emotional presentation. This could include mood swings, withdrawal from relationships or increased arguing and even fighting with siblings, parents, carers or other adults. Some may become afraid to leave the home and others may struggle with feelings of apathy, hopelessness or depression leading to self-harming behaviours. They can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions and feel unable to talk about them and may even believe that they are the only one feeling like this. They may engage in extensive research into coronavirus (to the extent that this interferes with other daily activities) and/or compulsive handwashing (when it is not related to an activity that would reasonably be associated with contamination) or they may also worry more about things that may seem unrelated to COVID-19 (ie, as a displacement of their feelings). They may have concerns about how the school and college closures and exam cancellations will affect them.

Useful websites for young people include:

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