By Paediatric psychologist, Amanda Abel

The COVID pandemic has caused a significant increase in mental health concerns for children, and clinically we are seeing this reflected in a surge in demand for psychological services. But in the absence of being able to seek professional help, or if a child just needs a helping hand to navigate the year ahead, there are a few actions parents can take to provide the support their kids need during the school year.

Consistency: The nature of disruption, and the uncertainty that comes with it, is enough to cause difficulties for children. Add to that inconsistent education, strained emotional wellbeing and pauses in our childrens’ social development, it’s no surprise that the pandemic has impacted our kids.

We know that one of the best ways to support children through uncertainty is to provide structure, predictability and consistency. This means ensuring your child keeps up attendance at school and is also following a decent predictable routine at home before and after school, and at bedtime. While we don’t want a rigid military-style routine, having the familiar rituals of when certain things occur throughout the day provides kids with a sense of security and relief (yes, even if they resist it!).

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist and founder of the Northern Centre for Child Development.

Implement routines: Similar to the above point, if your child does have to stay home to isolate, or the regular routine is interrupted for a different reason, try to implement other routines and rituals as quickly as you can. Explain the new schedule (perhaps you might have an “iso schedule”!) to your child and if you have the energy, present it visually to them.

Even just some dot points for each day of the week will provide some structure. By switching to a new routine, you are still providing predictability which can minimise the sense of unease in children when plans go awry.

The COVID pandemic has caused a significant increase in mental health concerns for children.

Control: Disrupted schedules and cancelled plans can make us all feel like we’re losing control. And for kids this can be even trickier because they don’t have the fully developed brains that we do, so it’s harder for them to make sense of a situation and tolerate the discomfort. Allowing your child to have a sense of control within your safe boundaries can help them feel more comfortable with the situation.

This might look like giving them a ‘choice of two’ more frequently than usual (such as “do you want to watch the TV or play on the iPad?” or “do you want toast for breakfast or cereal?”). You can also encourage your child to focus on what they already have control of, such as their attitude, and keeping themselves safe by washing their hands and doing their rapid testing.

Ensure you have open lines of communication with your child so that they can come to you with their worries and feelings.

Normalise their experience: Another factor that can lead children to feel a higher sense of anxiety in these situations, is feeling like they are the ‘only one’ who feels this way. Normalising their experience by explaining that it is ‘normal’ to feel worried, uncomfortable, and angry will validate them and can often make those big feelings far less scary.

Past experience: If your child seems to be struggling, particularly if they’re unwell with COVID or needing to isolate, remind them that they’ve managed these types of tricky situations before. Letting your child draw on previous experiences and even considering what tools helped them in the past, is a great strategy to encourage resilience.

Most importantly, ensure you have open lines of communication with your child so that they can come to you with their worries and feelings. By acknowledging and validating their feelings, regardless of how trivial they might seem, you will be strengthening that secure relationship with your child and setting them up with the resilience they need to navigate their way through the pandemic.

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist and founder of the Northern Centre for Child Development.