How to help kids feel safe again

Our clinician Kenneth Spedding provides some guidance for reassuring anxious children during challenging times.

Children need to feel safeFeeling safe, stable and secure is central to well-being and can influence long-term social habits, occupational outcomes and mental/ physical health. 

However, thanks to COVID-19, that sense of safety has been compromised and children have been left feeling anxious and confused. 

Children struggle following a disruption to their routines, impacting their sense of structure, predictability, and securityAfter some time, a new sense of normal is established and with some support, children begin to feel safe again.  However, for children surrounded by mental health difficulties, substance misuse or economic instability, that sense of safety is lost completely, and they are placed at especially high risk of traumatization. 

This loss of safety has been keenly seen at schools

Students that have been able to return are both excited and frightened; children have been observed skipping to the front gates only to freeze and refuse to enterThe school is quieter, areas and play equipment cordoned off, X’s painted on the ground, posters and COVID-19 safety reminders everywhere and teachers anxious about their own health and well-being. The previous safe haven of school, full of life and learning, is seemingly gone and students are left disorientated, confused and looking a little lost.  

Here are some practical things that can be done at home and within the classroom to help children find that sense of safety again

  • Understanding that children cope in different ways. 
  • Children respond differently to stressful events. Some become clingy, some regress to toddler like behaviours, some lose their appetite while others just need to eat constantly! New and challenging behaviours are normal, and an empathic, patient approach is necessary.
  • Social distancing is not equal to Social isolation. 
  • Social connectedness is important, especially in the time of social distancing.  Get creative with approaches to staying connected (e.g. Pen-pal program, online video chats, socially distanced games/ physical activity). 
  • Speak a child’s language. 
  • Provide children with age-appropriate information. Children’s imaginations tend to fill in the gaps when they lack sufficient information, but at the same time, providing unrestricted access to the news, media coverage, social media and adult conversations about the pandemic can be distressingProvide opportunities for children to access books, websites and other activities on COVID-19 that present information in child-friends ways.
  • Keep ‘em busy! 
  • Idle hands = worry and disruptive behaviours. Provide options for safe activities (e.g. outside play, blocks, clay, art, music) and brainstorm other creative ideas with them!
  • RRR – Reassure, routine and regulation. Reassure children about their safety, keep those routines in place to establish safety and predictability, and teach/ provide more opportunities for children to regulate from high levels of stress. 
  • Know when to call for extra support. Emotional and behavioural changes are expected. However, if these changes are persistent, distressing and don’t seem to go away after you’ve supported the child to the best of your ability, professional help may be needed. Consult with your GP if you have any concerns and feel like your child needs extra support.  

 

Together, we can help children find that sense of safety again and allow them to get back to doing what they do best: being kids.   

Kenneth Spedding

Educational and Developmental Psychology Registrar

Australian Childhood Trauma Group

References 

Bartlett, J. D., Griffin, J., & Thomson, D. 2020. Resources for Supporting Children’s Emotional Well-being during the COVID-19 Pandemic