High numbers of young Australian children are still experiencing anxiety while learning to live in the new “COVID-normal”, a new survey suggests.
High numbers of young Australian children are still experiencing anxiety while learning to live in the new “COVID-normal”, a new survey suggests.

Depression, anxiety: Pandemic takes its toll on young kids

A quarter of very young Australian children are still experiencing higher than usual levels of anxiety while learning to live in the new "COVID-normal", a survey probing the mental health impacts of the pandemic suggests.

Queensland and Victorian surveyed more than 370 Australian families with children aged one to five between August and November last year as part of their ongoing COVID-19 Unmasked research.

Not surprisingly, lead researcher Alex De Young, of Children's Health Queensland, said Victorian children who had experienced a second extended lockdown exhibited significantly increased anxiety, depression and attachment-seeking behaviours.

Brisbane Mum Suzy Walker with children Freddy, 2, and Isla, 3, enjoying a day at the park. Ms Walker says she doesn’t use the word COVID when she talks to them. Picture: Peter Wallis
Brisbane Mum Suzy Walker with children Freddy, 2, and Isla, 3, enjoying a day at the park. Ms Walker says she doesn’t use the word COVID when she talks to them. Picture: Peter Wallis

Up to 47 per cent of children caught up in Victoria's second lockdown had "high" levels of mental health difficulties, such as anger, anxiety, depression and sleeping problems, the survey found.

Dr De Young said about 25 per cent of preschool children across the rest of Australia whose parents were surveyed were also said to still be experiencing "higher than average" anxiety symptoms.

The online questionnaire is the second in a series of surveys probing the mental health of young children during the pandemic.

Dr De Young, a clinical psychologist with the Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health, said she had expected levels of anxiety to have dropped since the first survey in May, June and July among children outside of Victoria.

"There are lots of reminders that things still aren't completely normal, predictable and safe," she said.

"There are so many families who have lost work and there's no certainty, especially in the travel and hospitality industries. There are still ongoing impacts on our daily lives.

"Little kids can pick up on that. It can be quite frightening and scary because they don't really understand.

"There's been such little understanding of the mental health impacts in general in young children. It is widely assumed that young children don't have mental health difficulties. But we do know that that's not the case."

Clinical psychologist Dr Alex De Young. Photo: Queensland Health.
Clinical psychologist Dr Alex De Young. Photo: Queensland Health.

For example, one of the parent's surveyed reported their son had developed a compulsion for hand washing during the pandemic.

"It made his skin very dry and cracked, thickened and sore," the parent wrote.

"We tried several strategies to help his compulsion which became secretive at one stage, in pretending he needed the toilet so that he could wash his hands."

Dr De Young said the latest findings highlighted the importance of monitoring very young children for signs of anxiety and stress.

She said signs to look out for included increased sadness, not enjoying fun activities, separation anxiety, going backwards in previously developed skills, not wanting to leave the house and frequent worries about getting sick or dying from COVID-19.

"While these difficulties are likely to be temporary for most, some children and parents may require higher levels of psychological support.

"This is especially the case for families living in Victoria," De Young said.

Ascot mum Suzy Walker said her children, aged two and three, seemed slightly disrupted by the lockdowns and restrictions.

"During lockdowns, especially the first lockdown, they started going to daycare and crying. I just think there was a lot of change," she said.

"Isla was asking a bit about the masks this week, she asked 'have you got your mask, don't cough on anyone, you don't want to get sick Mum'. I think maybe they just sense it.

"I don't talk to them about it a lot though, I don't use the word COVID or coronavirus."

For results of the Australian survey: childrens.health.qld.gov.au/covid-19-unmasked/

Children's Health Queensland has prepared resources to help children through a variety of challenges, including the pandemic. They can be accessed at childrens.health.qld.gov.au/natural-disaster-recovery/

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Kids' Helpline: 1800 55 1800

Originally published as Depression, anxiety: Pandemic takes its toll on young kids



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