Children are not the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims. Fears of catching and transmitting the virus, social isolation, as well as school closures are having a harmful impact on their development.
Studies carried out in Luxembourg and Belgium confirm the impact of the pandemic on the youngest. Only 67% say they are “satisfied with their lives”, compared with 96% typically, according to a study carried out by the University of Luxembourg. In Belgium, one out of five adolescents had symptoms of depression during lockdown, a survey led by the University of Liège has found.
Children’s voices ignored
“The pandemic is having a severe effect on children’s lives and well-being,” says Isabelle Hauffels, Head of Advocacy at UNICEF Luxembourg, which supported the COVID-kids study carried out by researchers at the University of Luxembourg. With input from several European countries, the study highlighted the negative impact of the lockdown in March on children’s well-being, especially older children, those from poorer backgrounds, and girls.
Researchers were surprised by some of the study’s conclusions. “We saw, for example, that fears of falling ill because of the virus were exceptionally high in Luxembourg. That was unexpected,” explains Prof. Dr. Claudine Kirsch, Associate professor at the University of Luxembourg, who worked on the study with Prof. Dr. Sascha Neumann (University of Tübingen) and Prof. Dr. Pascale Engel de Abreu (University of Luxembourg).
“You’re scared. You don’t want to catch the virus and you don’t want to spread it to others… You don’t go out,” responded a 10-year-old girl in the study. A fifteen-year-old girl shared her frustrations: “It’s annoying being trapped in your house. I don’t feel free or safe.”
Not all responses were negative, however. “The best part (of lockdown) is spending time with my family and the comfort of doing work at home,” said a 14-year-old boy.
Children have not been listened to, Kirsch regrets, with their lengthy responses in the survey reflecting an outpouring of emotions.
School as a support network
The closure of schools had a significant impact on children’s well-being. “In Luxembourg, 55% of primary school children were only seeing their teachers once a week,” according to Kirsch, whose study focused primarily on pupils from a privileged background.
As well as falling behind in their studies, children have lost structure in both learning and interactions with classmates and teachers. School is typically a place where children can find support, Kirsch says, especially for girls who rely on social contact more than boys and suffer even more from anxiety linked to isolation.
“Inequalities which existed before the pandemic are likely to widen,” warns UNICEF’s Hauffels. Keeping schools open slows down the rise in inequalities and means the most vulnerable children can still be reached.
Lending a sympathetic ear
Children and teenagers need a sympathetic ear to express their worries. “Allow children to ask questions and have answers to ease their anxiety,” advises Hauffels, who suggests having an open dialogue adapted to their age. “Children who are informed are less frightened,” confirms Kirsch, who underlines how most children in her study said they were happy to be closer to their parents during lockdown.
The World Health Organization and UNICEF have shared tips on how to speak to children about the pandemic. Hauffels recommends parents remain calm and avoid “oversharing their own fears” with their children, and to leave these conversations to other adults.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres concludes: “With the pandemic placing so many of the world’s children in jeopardy… let us protect our children and safeguard their well-being;”
For more information:
- World Children’s Day
- Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on children
- Virtual Exhibition: One Day, I Will