Children show increase in mental health difficulties over COVID-19 Lockdown

... but teenagers react differently

As reported previously various research centres are currently undertaking surveys to assess the mental health fall out from lockdown. Professor Cathy Creswell, Departments of Psychiatry and Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, has been particularly interested in how parents and carers can support their children’s mental health in general. Mental health impact on children during lockdown

Results from the latest Oxford study say that parents/carers of children aged 4-10 years of age reported that over a one-month period in lockdown, they saw increases in their child’s emotional difficulties Emotional difficulties were characterised by feeling unhappy, being worried, being clingy and experiencing physical symptoms associated with worry. 

More than 10,000 parents have now taken part in the Co-SPACE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents, and Children in Epidemics) survey led by the University of Oxford. Early results from the Co-SPACE study, asking parents and carers about their children’s mental health through the COVID-19 crisis: 

Reported over a one-month period in lockdown

  • An increase in the child’s emotional, behavioural, and restless/attentional difficulties.
  • Secondary school age children show a reduction in emotional difficulties, but an increase in restless/attentional behaviours.
  • Adolescents report no change in their own emotional or behavioural, and restless/attentional difficulties.
  • Children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and those with a pre-existing mental health difficulty show a reduction in their child’s emotional difficulties and no change in behavioural or restless/attentional difficulties.

Children’s behaviour got worse over time

Parents/carers also reported that their children’s behaviour had got worse over time, with an increase in behaviours such as temper tantrums, arguments and children not doing what they are asked. Parents/carers in the survey also reported that their children showed greater levels of restlessness/fidgety behaviour and difficulties concentrating over the one month period.

Perhaps surprisingly, the same pattern was not seen in the older age group of 11-16 year olds. Teenagers themselves reported no change in their emotional difficulties between the two time points and their parents/carers reported that they felt that their child’s emotional difficulties had actually improved. Neither teenagers nor their parents reported any changes in their behaviour over this time but parents felt that their children were more restless and had more difficulty concentrating over time.

Tom Madders, Campaigns Director at YoungMinds, said, 'This research suggests that many younger children have found it increasingly hard to cope as the lockdown period has gone on, which may be because of loneliness, fears about the coronavirus or a loss of the routines and support that come with school.Paterns different in children of different ages

'The picture appears to be more variable for older children in this study. Following the anxiety and uncertainty of going into lockdown, some are likely to have found the restrictions more difficult as time as gone on, while others - including those who feel safe and secure at home but who find school challenging – may have adapted well to their new reality. For those young people, going back to school after a long break may well be tough, and it's vital that there's a re-adjustment period where wellbeing is prioritised.

vital that there's a re-adjustment period

'It's also important to recognise that some of the most vulnerable young people in our society - including those who have experienced abuse, violence or neglect - are often the hardest to identify. We need to ensure that effective support is available for all children who need it now and as restrictions lift.'

Professor Cathy Creswell, Professor of Developmental Clinical Psychology, co-leading the study, said, 'Prioritising the mental health of children and young people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond is critical. These findings highlight that there is wide variation in how children and young people have been affected, with some finding life easier but others experiencing more difficulties. Our findings have identified some sources of variation but we need to continue to gain a better understanding of which families are struggling and what they need to help direct the right advice and support going forward to ensure that this does not have long-lasting consequences.'

The Co-SPACE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents, and Children in Epidemics) survey is still open and keen for parents and carers to share their experiences This research is tracking children and young people’s mental health throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Survey results are helping researchers identify what protects children and young people from deteriorating mental health, over time, and at particular stress points, and how this may vary according to child and family characteristics. This will help to identify what advice, support and help parents would find most useful.

This research is supported through UKRI Covid-19 Rapid Response funding, and by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, the Oxford and Thames Valley NIHR Applied Research Consortium and the UKRI Emerging Minds Network Plus.

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