Coronavirus #4: From the perspective of a baby or young child

29th April 2020 By: Dr Camilla Rosan

In a new series of expert blogs, the Anna Freud Centre shines a spotlight on those children who are particularly vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis. As leading specialists in their fields, they call on colleagues and wider society to keep in mind these children and young people - and to act on the opportunities which exist to support them in these uncertain times.

In the fourth of our new series of blogs, Dr Camilla Rosan of the Anna Freud Centre explores the potential impact of the current situation on the youngest members of our society. She urges early years professionals to reach out to parents and carers with tangible offers of support for the weeks ahead.

The coronavirus outbreak has provoked some level of anxiety and fear in everyone. In this unchartered territory, everyone - from babies to adults - is affected. We are all feeling a mix of emotions, with most of us being placed in situations which are new to us.

What will be the impact on babies and young children?
It is easy to think that babies, toddlers or very young children (under the age of five) will have ‘missed’ the sudden change to life as we know it. We may assume that, in their early years, children do not notice changes affecting their daily routines, or that somehow they are less affected by them than adults. However, research tells us very clearly that this is not the case. As the youngest members of our society, their lives will be altered too.

Babies and young children are likely to be affected by the anxiety of their parents and other adults. They will also be directly affected by huge changes to their routine, such as no longer being able to attend nursery or play group. During this time, children will experience a variety of losses, including not being able to see family members or no longer having contact with playmates. Once we leave this coronavirus period, they may move on to school having missed out on the important ‘goodbyes’ to their pre-school settings.

All of this will take its toll on very young children, even if they do not yet have the ability to put this into words. As parents, carers and early years professionals, we need to be alert to this and seek to lessen its impact.

What can we do to make a difference?
Parents and primary carers will be the best resource for children. There are a number of ways in which professionals can support them to protect their very young children from some of the stresses and confusions they might be feeling:

  1. Acknowledging common reactions: It’s important for parents and carers to acknowledge some of the common reactions their child may show as a result of being upset. These may include frequent crying, difficulty staying still, problems falling asleep and staying asleep, nightmares, clinging to caregivers, fears of being alone, whining behaviour, increased temper tantrums, and repetitive play (repeating over and over again what they have heard, or taking special care of a doll or teddy). Some children may become aggressive or angry, others may withdraw. Some may regress to younger age, e.g. lose their toilet training, want to go back to drinking from a bottle, or talk like a much younger child.
  2. Talking to your child about the situation: To help children feel safe and manage feelings of loss, parents can acknowledge their child’s distress and difficulties. Find a way to discuss the current situation honestly and appropriate to the age of the child, without provoking fear. This may be challenging. It requires you to think how to answer a child’s questions. The questions themselves may trigger anxiety and stress for the adult, particularly if the answer is unknown (e.g. ‘how long will this last?’). What’s key is keeping explanations simple and turning them into a story (ideally a visual one), so the virus can be portrayed as less menacing and with references which are familiar to the child. See examples below.
  3. Labelling and exploring what is happening: Seek to understand what may be causing your child to become anxious. They may be worried about something specific, like missing friends or grandparents, rather than the coronavirus itself. Young children can sometimes believe they are responsible for events which are beyond their control (particularly when ‘magic thinking’ kicks in around the age of four). Reassure them that none of this is their fault and that you are here to keep them safe. Acknowledging other changes in their lives can help them feel validated, e.g. when they changed nursery but life otherwise stayed the same. It can help them feel less alone with their feelings, and in noticing that things are not the way they used to be.
  4. Keeping routines, and making time for play: The current outbreak will almost certainly have disrupted children’s usual routines. Creating new routines, or maintaining existing ones, can help them to feel safe. Keeping regular mealtimes and bedtimes, setting a daily time to play games together, read to them, or sing songs, will all contribute to the child’s sense of stability. Playing with children can also be one way of spending time with them, as play is fundamental to the wellbeing and development of children of all ages. It’s also a great way to reduce stress in adults. Sometimes, play is a safe way for children to act out things that are worrying them. It can help you to pick up on misunderstandings and talk about them.
  5. Looking after yourself too: Even if young children are not directly exposed to the trauma of the coronavirus outbreak, they can recognise stress and worry in the adults and older children they live with. Reassure parents and carers that, in looking after themselves, they will be in the best position to look after those who are important to them.

As an early years professional, you have a critical role to play in reminding parents and carers that looking after a baby or young child can be stressful under any circumstances. In our current reality, there will be times when this is made even harder. Help them to look to the support which exists around them - and which they can call upon in the weeks ahead.

Dr Camilla Rosan works at the Anna Freud Centre as Head of Early Years. Camilla is a consultant clinical psychologist and couple therapist by background and across her clinical career has held a range of therapeutic roles related to the early years in the NHS, local authority and other third sector organisations.

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