Children's Mental Health Improved During Lockdown

In our recent blog, The Impact of Lockdown on Language Development, we explored some of the negative effects of the past year of isolation on children. However, recently published studies have revealed some surprising information: lockdown improved children’s mental health!

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone. Between losing loved ones, redundancies and the hardship of months spent stuck inside, it’s no surprise that adults in 2020 were three times more likely to experience mental distress, anxiety or depression than in 2019.

However, a spate of recently published studies have revealed a very different story for children and teens. While these studies only cover the early months of lockdown (Spring and Summer 2020), it appears that, in this time, levels of depression and anxiety actually markedly reduced in young people.

One study in the US found that children were much more likely to report themselves as happy than sad during the early pandemic, and these numbers only increased as the weeks went by. Children described themselves as ‘more calm’ than they had been whilst at school, while their parents reported reductions in anxiety and fewer parent-child conflicts.

Another study, here in the UK, found that the percentage of girls at risk of anxiety fell from 54% pre-pandemic (Autumn 2019) to 45% during, and boys at risk fell from 26% pre-pandemic to 18% during. Yet another, this time focusing on teenagers, found that cases of depression in this age bracket dropped from 27% in 2018 to only 17% in 2020.

Why might this be?

Firstly, children of course have different concerns to adults. While many children reported being worried that their family and friends may catch the virus, concerns about money and employment were, naturally, lower for children than their parents. However, while this may explain why children’s mental health didn’t suffer as much as adults’, it doesn’t explain the surprising improvement.

In his article on the findings, research professor of psychology, Peter Gray, theorises that the reduction in time spent in school and more time to play, pursue individual interests and spend time with family could account for these improvements. As Gray points out:

“For decades prior to the pandemic, the social trajectory for children was one of ever-increased time spent at school, at schoolwork at home, and at adult managed school-like activities outside of school; ever-increased performance pressure related to such endeavors; and ever-reduced opportunity to play and explore in their own chosen ways. Over this same period, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among school-aged children rose continuously”

He also goes on to note that a plethora of studies have shown how mental health problems in children spike during school term-time, and reduce during the summer holidays.

Indeed, the evidence does appear to back up Gray’s theory. 47% of surveyed children said they were enjoying spending time with family, while 30% said they were enjoying pursuing their own interests. Children also commented that they were helping more around the house, learning to prepare meals and spending more time reading for fun and engaging in games and craft activities.

Both parents and children surveyed noted that young people were spending more time amusing themselves and, while this did lead to a certain amount of boredom (of course!), this boredom motivated many children to try new activities and amuse themselves through self-directed play - something that, as you’ll know if you regularly read our blog, is very important for children’s social and emotional development!

So what can we take away from this?

The three key factors that appear to have caused this boost in children’s mental health are:
  • Less school pressure
  • More time with family
  • More time to play and pursue interests

These results really highlight the importance of free time and play, especially when compared to more academic pursuits. There’s a lot of pressure on families to ensure their children ‘catch up’ on missed learning this year, but this doesn’t necessarily mean practising times tables and running spelling tests.

In this blog, we provided a few tips for encouraging language development post-lockdown, including singing songs, reading together and playing.

You can also encourage your little one’s learning by utilising their interests, such as counting trucks or learning about the life cycles of different animals. You can learn more about that here.

Mathematical learning, too, can take place as your child helps around the house, pairing socks, weighing ingredients and counting coins.

But, most of all, what these studies have shown is that, more than learning to count or read, opportunities to play freely and spend time with loved ones is hugely important to our little ones’ mental health.

So, I hope that, even as the world opens up again and life regains a little more stability and normality, you and your little one can find quality time to spend together.

Content Creator at MEplace
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