Information for parents and carers

Information for parents and carers

COVID-19: We’ve got this covered! Helping prevent anxiety and depression in children and young people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"From our survey responses, 52% of parents felt they would benefit from more information about how to help their children keep mentally healthy during this time." Professor Jennie Hudson, Director of the Centre for Emotional Health.

We have designed the content and format of this webpage specifically for you.

Through this collaboration between Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health and School of Education, we have provided a collection of information and expert videos to help you support your child's mental health during COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

A parent comforting an upset child

Below we describe what signs to look for, and how you might go about seeking extra support for child.

Signs your child may be anxious

  • Seeking frequent reassurance (asking repetitive questions).
  • Avoiding situations or objects they are afraid of.
  • Becoming upset or crying easily.
  • Complaining of stomach-aches or headaches.
  • Clinging to you or reluctant to leave the house or leave your side.

Signs your child may be depressed

  • They have low energy.
  • They have lost interest in activities and things they usually enjoy.
  • They make negative comments.
  • They become upset, irritable or easily annoyed.
  • Their appetite or sleep patterns have changed.

Signs your child may benefit from extra mental health support

Your child’s worries or sadness/irritability are starting to impact their family life, schooling or friendships.

  • Your child’s anxiety or low mood is stopping them from doing things they enjoy.
  • Your child’s distress seems to be out of proportion to the situation.
  • Your child’s anxiety or low mood persists for longer than expected.
  • Your child has been sad or irritable most of the day for two weeks.

What should you do? Where should you go to find support?

  • COVID-19 specific health services.
  • General practitioner (GP).
  • School counsellor.
  • Online treatment programs.
  • Psychologists and other mental health professionals.

For more information about where to seek help see the tip sheet below.

Navigating the mental health system

Be aware that the first therapist you see may not be the best fit for your child. Persist until you find someone both you and child feel comfortable with.

It is also important to speak to your therapist about the type of treatment approach they will be using and the evidence for this approach. For example, for anxiety problems, we know that exposure therapy is a key component of treatment, so it is critical to see a therapist who has experience in delivering exposure therapy.

In the video below, Dr Ella Oar from the Centre for Emotional Health and Department of Psychology at Macquarie University talks to parents and carers about how to know whether your child is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and when to seek help.

Watch the video or download the tip sheet.

Video - How do I know if my child is not copingg?

A parent talking to their son

Below are two strategies for reducing anxiety. These strategies come from Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health Cool Kids program.

1. Change worried thinking to more realistic thinking

To help your children think more realistically, consider asking them three questions:

  • What are the facts?
  • What is most likely to happen?
  • Will I be able to cope?

2. Reducing avoidance

Avoiding situations makes us feel safer in the short term. The key is to gradually face the situations we are afraid of. Start with less scary situations and work up to scarier ones. Continuous practice helps people to learn that a situation is not so scary, and confidence grows. To do this well, you need to work out why children are avoiding a particular situation.

In the video below, Professor Viv Wuthrich from the Centre for Emotional Health and Department of Psychology at Macquarie University talks to parents and carers about strategies to reduce anxiety and help children and teens transition back to school.

Watch the video or download the tip sheet.

Video - How can I help my child if they are anxious?

A father talking to a worried teenage son

It also depends on many other factors such as the unique qualities the child brings to the situation (eg their temperament, thinking styles etc). Parents/carers can do a number of things to optimise their child’s response.

The strategies below come from Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health Cool Kids program.

  1. Listen: It is important to listen, acknowledge and normalise your child’s experience. Provide opportunities for them to express their concerns. Try not to dismiss their feelings or rush to reassure them, but instead, listen first.
  2. Avoid excessive reassurance: Try not to use statements such as ‘Don’t worry’ or ‘You will be okay’, but consider asking questions such as ‘What do you think you can say to yourself to help you worry less?’ and try to help them to think realistically.
  3. Focus on courage: Another way to shape your child’s response is to focus your attention on the times they are able to be courageous or deal with their worry.
  4. Be a calm role model: One of the most useful things we can do to help reduce our children’s worry is to be calm ourselves. Our children take cues from us about how to react, and they learn how to handle challenging situations by watching and listening to what we say.

In the video below, Professor Jennie Hudson, Director of the Centre for Emotional Health, and Department of Psychology at Macquarie University discusses how parents and carers can talk to children and teens about their COVID-19 worries.

Watch the video or download the tip sheet.

Video - How can I talk to my child about their worries?

A mother sitting with her withdrawn teenager

Have you noticed a change in your child’s behaviour? They may ignore you; appear lazy; refuse to get out of bed; or have trouble concentrating, focusing or remembering things.

Here are some tips on how to deal with such a situation:

  • Check in regularly and spend some one-on-one time with your child.
  • Help your child develop a sense of hope for the future and develop a family plan.
  • Build up a healthy daytime routine with a focus on pleasant activities. When your child is starting to withdraw, it’s helpful to have a visual chart to help orient your child to the day ahead.
  • Use a stepped approach to build engagement with online learning. When it comes to online learning, lighten the load, include lots of breaks and mix up online learning activities with other activities that are likely to foster a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment for your child.
  • Balance screen use with physical, family and educational activities.
  • Encourage your child’s social connections by allowing contact with each friend to help your child, especially young people, process and support each other during these stressful times.
  • Encourage family time and some time out of bedrooms.
  • Make time for physical activity and encourage your child to engage in 3 minutes of physical activity each day.
  • Maintain a healthy eating and sleep schedule.
  • Be prepared to hear about your child’s suicidal thoughts. If your child appears depressed, be prepared to ask your child about whether they are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Don’t sweep your child’s symptoms under the rug, and seek advice from your GP.

In the video below, Dr Anna McKinnon from the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University talks to parents and carers about how to help children and teens if they are down or withdrawn.

Watch the video or download the tip sheet.

Video - How can I help child if they are down or withdrawn?

A teen looking bored whilst they're studying

Many of these strategies come from Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health Study Without Stress (SWOS) Program.

For some parents/carers who are working from home, the list below may feel overwhelming. We would suggest selecting one or two strategies that might work for you and your child.

Time Management

  • Structure: Plan a day that is similar in structure to a school day. Ensure your child maintains a regular wake-up time and help them to develop a timetable that works for them. Break tasks into small manageable chunks, as this can help with their motivation.
  • Regular breaks: Encourage your child to take more regular breaks than normal to introduce a change of pace throughout the day.
  • Physical activity: Include some physical activity at several points throughout the day, as being in front of a computer for long periods can be more physically difficult on the body than being in a normal classroom.
  • Connect: Try to find time for children to connect with friends and family. Use apps such as FaceTime.
  • Ask for help: Remind your child that if they feel unsure, then it is OK to ask for help. This is a new way of learning for all of us.

Motivation

Motivation is something we look for before starting at task. This is a fallacy. It is better to simply make a start in a small way, and then motivation kicks in. Time management can help, too. Here are a few additional to help build motivation:

  • Break work into small chunks: Some children may need help with this.
  • Plan and encourage rewards: Provide a reward when your child completes a task. A reward could be a favourite meal, a fun game, going for bike ride etc.
  • Encourage teamwork: Some children will be missing the energy of classroom interactions. Encourage them to work together, if possible. For example, form small study groups and/or have virtual play dates after school.
  • Tailor learning activities: Consider if it is possible for children to work on things that particularly interest them.
  • Overcome hurdles: If getting started is difficult for your child, encourage 10–15 minutes focus on a task, and then allow a short break, if needed. Motivation often builds as we begin an activity, not before it.
  • Study space: It may help to have a regular place to study.
  • Listening: If your child seems to be more worried than usual, try to set aside time to listen to their concerns. Sometimes, kids don’t want us to solve their problems; they just need to know we really hear them.
  • Normalise: We’re all in this together. If your child is worried that they are falling behind because of the changes in schooling, reassure them that everyone has been affected by COVID-19. There will be opportunities in coming months to recover any learning missed.

In the video below, Lesley Smyth from Centre for Emotional Health, and Department of Psychology at Macquarie University talks to parents and cares about how they help their children during  the COVID-19 restrictions to stay motivated.

Watch the video or download the tip sheet.

Video - How can I help my child learn independently and stay motivated?

A family at home

Although you might be tempted to go into overdrive to minimise the impact on your kids, you are not immune to the stress either. Remember that taking care of your own wellbeing is essential.

Below are four things you can do for your own wellbeing:

  1. Be gentle with yourself: In the world of parenting, there is a drive to be the best you can be, and to be everything to everyone. Your kids don’t need you to be the perfect parent/carer. They need you to be good enough and to help them feel safe and supported. For this to happen, they need you to be OK. Try to create more realistic and achievable expectations to reduce the pressure.
  2. Take breaks for self-care: Make sure you take some breaks to do the things that will help you feel less stressed. If you have someone to watch the kids, take a walk by yourself and enjoy the break. Try to find some time each day to take care of yourself, even if it’s just five minutes.
  3. Stay connected: While it’s important to make time to have fun and connect as a family, make sure you create time for your own social connections. Vent. Laugh. Share ideas about coping and compromising. Be there to support each other.
  4. Be mindful of how you are thinking about the situation – take it seriously but keep your response in perspective: Stay informed from reliable sources but remember that this will end. It might not feel like it some days, but it won’t be like this forever.

In the video below, Dr Carly Johnco  from the Centre for Emotional Health and Department of Psychology at Macquarie University talks to parents and carers about how to look after their own mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch the video or download the tip sheet.

Video - What can I do to stay mentally healthy?

Two children doing school work at home

You may find it useful to break screen time up into different categories – such as educational, active, leisure and social – to help you decide how much of each is suitable for your child and your family.

Strategies to break up the day and manage screen time

  1. Aim for short bursts of screen time learning and plan regular breaks: The number of brain breaks and how long each one is will depend on your child’s needs and ability to focus.
  2. Get active: Encourage exercise throughout the day.
  3. Get creative: Use technology to work on creative projects.
  4. Use devices: Access audio content that you can listen to together.
  5. Switch off: Provide alternative activities to screen time so that young children can have valuable unstructured playtime.

Strategies to set limits on screen time

If you already have limits in place, you may consider if they need to be renegotiated to take into account activities that have now moved online.

  1. Be clear on the limits on screen time you are setting.
  2. Assume that most children and young people will need help adhering to limits.
  3. Either allocate screen time at the same time each day or negotiate with your child at the start of the day to determine when they’ll have their screen time.
  4. Make them earn screen time, and use it as a reward for completing tasks or doing exercises.
  5. Use star charts for good behaviours – children may be able to earn starts towards extra screen time (also look for internal rewards too, like being satisfied with doing the right thing).
  6. Set limits on how screens will be used at different times.

Strategies to encourage your children to disconnect from technology

  1. Provide reminders. Remind them about 5–10 minutes before you want them to get off technology.
  2. Use a timer. Some children may find it helpful to have a timer set with an alarm at these intervals or a clock they can see.
  3. Choose logical times for them to finish what they’re doing. For example, consider saying ‘When this YouTube video ends, you need to stop using the iPad and brush your teeth’.
  4. Give clear instructions. Provide short, clear instructions about what you want them to do next, and allow them time to comply.
  5. Connect before disconnecting. Some kids really struggle to disengage from what they’re doing, even when we give them reminders.
  6. Praise your child when they comply with the limits. Reward children with genuine praise when they’re able to disconnect, and avoid generic phrases such as good job or well done.
  7. Apply natural consequences for noncompliance. Once you have set limits that work for your family, given them reminders, tried multiple strategies and your child is still really struggling to disconnect, you can try giving them a natural consequence to encourage them to comply.
  8. Use parental controls. Parental controls are features that may be included in computer and video games, mobile phones devices and software that allow you to restrict the access of content to your children.

In the video below, Michelle Azoum from the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University talks to parents and carers about how to manage screen time.

Watch the video or download the tip sheet.

Video - How do I manage screen time?

A mother with her daughter on a video call

This is particularly true for young people, as they're at a stage in their development where social connection is particularly important for their sense of self and identity, which feeds into their sense of wellbeing.

Here are four strategies to improve social connectedness for young people:

  1. Engage in detective or realistic thinking: If you notice that your child is feeling sad, withdrawn or anxious, it may help to engage in some detective or realistic thinking. Ask them to identify the thought behind the feeling. If they feel lonely, left out or isolated, collect some evidence for their thoughts and come up with alternative ways to cope.
  2. Problem-solve: Help your child to work through their feelings of being disconnected from others. Most children will be missing their friends or other important people in their life, so it may be helpful to sit down with them and think of ways to increase their sense of connection.
  3. Guard against social isolation and increase a sense of connection: Connecting with others can be the best antidote to stress, anxiety and low mood. For children who are socially anxious or naturally shy, social isolation may seem to have some benefits as it reduces the opportunities for them to engage in anxiety-provoking situations. However, it’s important for you to encourage your child to face social situations in a gradual way as avoidance will only make it really hard for your child to engage in these social situations post COVID-19.
  4. Tolerate your child's distress: The hardest part about being a parent/carer is seeing your child suffer or experience distress. Try to see this as an opportunity to support your child to develop coping strategies. As parents/carers, we often try to solve or get rid of problems for our children to reduce their distress. In the long run, this is not always helpful as it doesn't give your child an opportunity to develop ways of coping.

In the video below, Dr Gemma Sicouri from the Centre for Emotional Health and Department of Psychology at Macquarie University talks to parents and carers about how to help children and teens stay socially connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch the video or download the tip sheet.

Video - How do I help my child stay connected?

A teen eating something from an open fridge

Physical hunger

Your child may request additional food purely because of physical hunger. Sugary or high carbohydrate foods, such as chips, cause a spike in blood sugar levels, and those levels drop rapidly, causing your child to feel hungry again much sooner.

To help in this situation, consider the following tips:

  • Avoid certain food types: Try not to buy food that is high in sugar or carbohydrates.
  • Provide healthy snack options: Having a selection of healthy snacks on hand will help – hummus and carrot sticks, butter-free popcorn or fruit.
  • Set meal/snack times: Try to set meal/snack times at the same time as if your child was going to day care or school.
  • Plan: Consider planning meals in advance and involve them in the planning process. This will make your child feel more committed to the roster as well as giving them a sense of self-efficacy or control.

Boredom/emotional hunger

Children, like adults, often eat for reasons other than being hungry. It can help to try and identify why your child is asking for food – that is, what were they doing just before they asked for food? Some tips on how to manage emotional eating include:

  • Plan regular scheduled breaks: As well as planning regular breaks, plan what your child will do during those breaks.
  • Help break tasks down: If your child is finding it hard to get started on new tasks, it can help to break the task down into more manageable chunks.
  • Listen: If your child’s eating is prompted by negative emotions, it could help to listen and talk through those emotions.

In the video below, Dr Heather Francis  from the  Department of Psychology at Macquarie University talks to parents and carers about how to prevent children from over-eating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch the video or download the tip sheet.

Video - How do I prevent emotional or boredom eating?

Are there any long-term health risks for my child?

The transition back to school is going to pose a mental health risk for some children and young people. When we are anxious, a common reaction is to avoid the situation that makes us anxious. In the short term this reduces our anxiety but in the long term it increases our anxiety.

Avoidance is a good strategy when you have a massive tiger coming towards you and you need to escape but not so good when your anxiety and your perception of threat doesn’t match the real threat. It leads you to miss out on many aspects of life. Avoidance is not a great strategy for many situations because it limits our opportunity to test out our beliefs and limits opportunities for us to realise we can cope with challenge.

Because of isolation and lock down we have been avoiding situations that might typically make some young people feel anxious (like presentations at school, interacting with friends, public transport). Going back to school, might cause increased anxiety for people if they are thinking worried thoughts like “What if I catch it?” “This is going to be too hard” “I can’t do this.” Our anxiety is reduced by facing the situations that scare or worry us.

The more we do something scary, the easier it gets. The first day back can be difficult but as you face the situation and realise that your worried thought is not as likely as you thought (and that you can cope with the situation) the anxiety reduces. Doing this in a gradual way can make it easier.

For children and young people, a gradual transition back to school will make it easier for those children and young people with mental health difficulties. Parents can start thinking about what other strategies might help their children to make the transition back to school. A gradual, step-by-step approach works best. See more information about this on videos 2 and 3.

My teen has had ‘anxiety’ since she was in primary school. She has been through the Cool Kids program and this really helped but I am concerned her anxiety is going to come back. What do you recommend?

If you still have access to your materials from the program, it might be worth revisiting the content from the workbook. We have new materials available for children and teens or if you have the program you can download fresh worksheets from this page.

The videos we have provided in the top three sections above might also serve as a refresher about the signs to look for and strategies from the Cool Kids program. You could work through a detective thinking worksheet with your daughter and plan some stepladders for any situations she is avoiding because of her anxiety. If her anxiety starts to stop her from doing things she would like to be able to do, or she is worrying on a daily or almost daily basis then it might be worth speaking to your GP to assess the need for a mental health care plan or visit the clinic again. We have also provided a number of different options above.

I can’t get my teen out of bed to join in online learning. What should I do? Is he depressed?

It can be really challenging knowing the right response to your teen’s mood and behaviour. Parents can feel lost and so may do nothing to avoid saying the wrong thing. This then escalates your frustration and then lead to conflicts between the two of you which just makes it worse.

Take a look at the information we have provided above in this video, about how to recognise depression and also several helpful strategies. There are also some good tips for motivation in this video. He needs your support right now. Find some time (perhaps later in the day) to talk about your concerns with him. It might be useful to find another adult he could talk to informally.

Consider seeking help if it is impacting on his learning. There are some courses available here that he could also do from home or our 'Chilled Out' courses for teens.

For more Q&A

Professor Jennie Hudson answers a range of other questions about anxiety in children and young people here.

Got a question or comment?

Get in touch with us!

Content owner: Centre for Emotional Health Last updated: 14 May 2020 2:07pm

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