Health Agenda

Mental Health

Children and COVID-19: Vaccines, returning to school and how to give them the support they need

As lockdowns start to lift, many children are excited to go back to school. But with some kids still unvaccinated, here are some things parents can do to help keep their youngsters feeling safe and supported.

After months of home-schooling for many Australian children during the most recent COVID-19 lockdowns, a return to the classroom is now imminent. So, should parents be worried about their kids and COVID-19?

Kids, COVID-19 and vaccines

At the best of times, children aren’t great at keeping their hands clean and wiping snotty noses. Reassuringly, though, data shows that young people are less likely to spread COVID-19 than adults.

While it’s true that children have been less affected by the COVID-19 virus than adults, the Delta strain has seen more children becoming infected. And despite an increase of more than five times the number of infections in schools as a result of Delta, compared to the initial strain in 2020, one report found that just 2% of NSW children diagnosed in this latest outbreak had been hospitalised.

But while the vast majority of infections in children haven’t resulted in serious illness, the risk is still there.

When it comes to vaccinations, the latest health advice indicates that children over 12 can safely receive a Pfizer or Moderna vaccination against COVID-19 (AstraZeneca is approved for people 18 years or older). But until there’s an approved vaccine available in Australia for children under 12, health professionals have stressed the importance of all eligible members of a household being vaccinated to help protect any unvaccinated children.

Vaccine trials for younger children are currently underway, and the latest reports suggest vaccines for five to 12-year-olds could be available by the end of this year.

Preparing kids for the classroom during COVID-19

With so much excitement at finally seeing their school mates again, children may not have given a lot of thought to what may be different, says Dr Eddie Mullen, consultant psychiatrist at Orygen, Australia’s centre of excellence in youth mental health.

“Talk to your children about what they can expect,” says Dr Mullen. “They may have to adapt to unfamiliar safety practices and wear masks, be distanced from their friends or teachers, and wash their hands more often. Acknowledging that things may be different can help prepare children for any changes.”

Many high school students may be vaccinated by the time they go back to school, but no primary-school aged kids will be. Ways to help them stay healthy include:

  • making sure all eligible household members are fully vaccinated
  • encouraging mask-wearing where possible, including at school, for all children
  • ensuring good hygiene is practised, including regular handwashing and sneezing into their elbow
  • being outside as much as possible
  • staying home if unwell, and getting a COVID-19 test if a child has symptoms or has been exposed to infection.

Schools and the state and territory departments of education are also playing their part in keeping kids safe at school.

In NSW, for example, all high school students and teachers will be required to wear masks and all teachers must be fully vaccinated unless they have a medical condition that prevents it. Mask-wearing is recommended, though not mandatory, for primary school students.

In Victoria, staff at schools and early childhood centres must be fully vaccinated by November 29, unless they have a medical condition that prevents it.

Schools around the country are being encouraged to be hyper-aware of good hygiene practices and having well-ventilated classrooms as children return.

Visit the Government's COVID-19 website for current national guidelines around returning to school, or visit your state or territory’s education department website:

Primary vs secondary: How kids have coped with COVID-19

Children are all different and will have responded to the pandemic and lockdowns in their own ways.

For her 15-year-old daughter Matilda, emergency and aged-care nurse Karren, from Sydney, was most concerned that she was getting the right information from reputable sources. “She gets a lot of her information from mates and Instagram, so we wanted to make sure it was correct. When she came to us, we were able to talk through anything she had questions about and give her the facts. The main thing I noticed was that all of her friends really wanted to get the vaccine so they could get back to their normal lives. There wasn’t a lot of anxiety about the virus itself.”

For her younger daughter Adelaide, nine, Karren said she had to be careful that the household wasn’t overloading her with too much information. “We have the radio on a lot at home and eventually Adelaide said she was sick of hearing about COVID-19. We decided then to monitor her exposure to the news and reduce it so it wasn’t overwhelming.”

If your child is anxious about the virus, getting infected or becoming ill, here are some tips that may help:

  • Be honest and available to talk. Whispering in corners or slamming the newspaper shut as soon as a child walks into the room is going to make them suspicious and is likely to increase anxiety. Having open, honest dialogue without overwhelming them with unnecessary information will help them feel secure.
  • Use age-appropriate resources. For young kids, these videos from the Queensland Department of Education and the Wiggles are a great way to explain COVID-19. For older primary students, National Geographic for Kids and the Calm Kid Central guide for parents on how to talk to children about COVID-19 may help to answer questions. And for older children, websites like health.gov.au and who.int have all the latest guidelines and information, which you can read through together.
  • Reassure them. For young ones, answer all questions in simple terms, and pay attention to when they’ve had enough and want to talk about something else. For older kids, be honest but also focus on the positives, such as the high rate of vaccinations in adults and children, and how that reduces everyone’s risk of getting sick.

One of the best ways to support your kids is by trying to remain positive and healthy yourself, says Dr Mullen. “Children pick up on cues from adults, so when you’re stressed and anxious, they look to you to see how you cope with those feelings. Monitor how you’re doing and practise good self-care.”

While this might be easier said than done, especially after a long lockdown, it’s important that parents look after their own wellbeing. Having good sleep hygiene, including keeping all devices out of bedrooms, a healthy diet, and regular exercise can all help reduce stress and anxiety.

If you or your kids need further support in managing the stresses and anxieties of COVID-19 or the return to school, PSYCH2U offers eligible members* access to bulk-billed video consultations with a psychologist, as well as a range of other mental health resources

Signs your child might be anxious

Being separated from friends and peers during COVID-19 restrictions has been tough on children. “Children rely on people their own age for things like discovering their values, preferences and even their identity,” says Dr Mullen. “The best parent still isn’t a peer and they can’t provide the same things other kids can.”

Karren said she could visibly see when her teenage daughter was struggling.

“It was very obvious when Matilda wasn’t happy. She spent more time in her room, was always on her phone and would walk around the house with her hoodie pulled up. When we were able to have a bubble with a friend of hers, the change in her was immediate. She was lively and happy. If she went a few days without seeing her friend, she would start to withdraw again.”

For nine-year-old Adelaide, Karren said the changes were different but just as obvious.

“During the last few weeks of term, she lost all motivation. It was harder to get her out of the house, even for a bike ride, and we had tears over school work. Her friends’ parents are all saying they’re having the same thing with their younger ones. The kids are just over it.”

Dr Mullen says parents should look out for any significant changes in behaviour. “We can’t read kids’ minds, but if sleep or eating habits change, or if they’re more oppositional than usual… these things could be signs there may be some anxiety.”

Common signs of anxiety in children include:

  • changes in eating habits, either eating too much or not enough
  • changes in sleep habits, including sleeping for too long, being unable to fall asleep or having disturbed sleep
  • emotional outbursts or over-reactions to situations that wouldn’t normally bother them
  • lack of motivation or interest in activities they once enjoyed.

Read more about signs of anxiety in children.

Using routine to help children feel safe and happy

Experts agree that routine is vital for children in helping them feel safe and secure, but lockdown is sure to have interrupted many of your children’s regular activities and even sleep schedules.

“We are usually very strict about boundaries with screens; when they can be used and keeping them out of bedrooms at night,” says Karren. “But a few weeks into lockdown we could appreciate that Matilda was only able to connect with her friends through her phone. So instead of evenings being for homework, we let her use that time to chat.”

But keeping a regular routine of activities for her younger daughter helped keep her occupied and happy. “Although it was all on Zoom, Adelaide was able to keep up with her dance, ballet and piano lessons, on the same days and at the regular times. It helped keep things consistent for her.”

Re-establishing routines around screen time, homework and, most importantly, sleep, is vital as children transition back to school, says Dr Mullen, who suggests not leaving it to the last minute.

“Prepare early on, not the day they’re heading back to school. Get sleep routines back into shape, including keeping devices out of bedrooms and turned off at least two hours before bedtime, as the stimulation and blue light they omit can stop kids from feeling tired.”

Some tips on how to reset routines:

  1. Reinstate regular wake-up and bed times before school starts so that kids are well-rested.
  2. Have regular mealtimes, and avoid sugary treats and snacks in the afternoons, which can interrupt sleep patterns.
  3. Encourage kids to start thinking about what they’ll need in their schoolbags and any uniforms that need washing or replacing.
  4. Discuss bringing back rules around screens and using “homework time” to read or exercise, so kids get used to being away from gaming and phones.

How to help a child who doesn’t want to go back to school

Some children will find the prospect of returning to the classroom difficult, for any number of reasons.

Karren’s daughters were both learning remotely for Term 3 and are expected to go back to their classrooms in November as part of NSW’s staggered return.

“Matilda is happy to go back, but despite missing her friends, Adelaide has already said she’s not looking forward to it. I think she’s found home-schooling easier because it’s one-on-one.”

If your child is feeling anxious about returning to school, you can help support them by finding out exactly what they are worried about. Is it getting sick with COVID-19, having to face a bully once again or looming exams? The more information you have, the more you can help by talking it through with them and helping them come up with coping strategies.

“While you may not understand their concerns, let your child know that you are there to talk. And don’t think you have to do it alone. Schools have a lot of experience and can help to figure out what can be modified or changed to help your child feel more comfortable,” says Dr Mullen.

Tips to help an anxious child transition back to school include:

  • Talk about what's worrying them and how they might cope in the moment – perhaps identify a friend they can talk to if they’re feeling anxious, or remind them about a teacher they like.
  • Be open about the types of things that make you anxious and what you do to feel better, like doing exercise or watching a funny movie. As well as normalising anxious feelings, it shows your kids that there are ways to feel happier.
  • If children are finding it hard to verbalise exactly what’s bothering them, try chatting during a bike ride or over a board game. Kids often respond better when they don’t feel put on the spot.
  • Ask teachers and support staff for help. Most schools will have programs in place to help kids who are struggling or an on-site counsellor who can help support your child.

Other useful resources for parents and kids around the topic of going back to school during COVID-19 can be found here:

Getting help with child anxiety

As a parent, you’re not alone when it comes to helping a child with anxiety.

HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central^, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4–11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations.

The program includes online courses, video lessons, activities and animations to help them understand and better manage their feelings. There is also confidential access to an experienced child psychologist who can answer your questions within 48 hours. Plus, there are resources for children who are worried or unsettled by COVID-19.

Find out more about Calm Kid Central and eligibility.

Where to find extra help for kids’ mental-health support

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
 

Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published October 2021

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