Stop scaring kids stiff about coronavirus

We must make clear to our kids that this crisis is not insurmountable.

Joanna Williams

We have to stop scaring young children about coronavirus. According to a study carried out by the University of Oxford, one primary-school child in five is so worried about Covid-19 they are reluctant to leave their home. More than half of children are scared that a friend or relative might catch the virus, and almost a quarter worry they could pass on the virus to others. Many are afraid that they will not have enough food to eat and two fifths are reported to be worried about missing school work. Younger children are reported to be more anxious about coronavirus than those aged between 11 and 16.

It’s hardly surprising that children are concerned: every aspect of their lives has been fundamentally changed in a very short space of time. Rolling news coverage details the latest pandemic death tolls. They know their parents are worried about both coronavirus and the possibility of losing work. But the onus is on adults to help children put these fears into perspective. We need to show children that even though Covid-19 poses a serious risk, there are scientists researching a vaccine – and there doctors and nurses, farmers and lorry drivers who are all working to make things better. If we can’t do this, then coronavirus – and our response to it – may have lasting implications for children’s mental as well as physical health.

Before coronavirus, there was concern about an ‘epidemic’ of mental-health problems in children and young adults. ‘Britain’s schoolchildren are suffering from an epidemic of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts,’ we were frequently warned. Universities were likewise ‘experiencing a surge in student anxiety, mental breakdowns and depression’, with some institutions said to be in the grip of a ‘suicide epidemic’. Now, confronted with a real global health epidemic, schools and universities have shut their doors.

As Kathryn Ecclestone, co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, points out, pre-coronavirus more students were being diagnosed with mental illnesses, admitted to hospital, engaging with crisis teams and being sectioned than in the past. However, she suggests, a ‘slippery terminology’ ‘elides “mental illness” with “issues”, “problems” and “difficulties”’, and this ‘blurs the distinction between serious and everyday problems’. While some young people suffer from mental illness, there has also been a pathologising of routine experiences and emotions.

The perception of an ‘epidemic’ of mental-health problems emerged from the view that children are unable to cope with the challenges everyday life throws at them. Yet the vocabulary of stress and anxiety that now trips off the tongue of even the youngest child has been put there by adults who clearly think children should be anxious about exams, stressed about student debt, and panicking about climate change. It seems that some adults have given up on their fellow citizens in favour of heaping the world’s problems on to the shoulders of children. Ironically, one unintended consequence of shutting schools might be that children have the opportunity to forget directives that everything in life is to be considered stressful.

Unfortunately, the notion that children are simultaneously vulnerable and capable of taking onboard adult problems risks defining our response to coronavirus. Children are seen as being in need of protection, but also, more perniciously, as virus-spreaders who need to be kept at home for the safety of others. By shutting down almost every aspect of economic and social life, our society gives children the message that coronavirus is such a huge and insurmountable problem that all people can do in response is to hide away.

Unsurprisingly, children are left worried about both coronavirus and the impact of the lockdown. A recent study from the US claims that six out of 10 teenagers are worried about being exposed to the virus and their families’ ability to earn money. The survey showed that black and Latino youth are more likely to be worried about their family’s capacity to earn money than their risk of catching the virus. Worries are exacerbated when a situation feels beyond your control. Coronavirus means people will get ill and some lives will tragically be cut short, but it is the lockdown that has led to the shutting down of the economy. Children need to know that people can play a role in shaping the world around them, and, in the future, different choices can be made.

Sadly, a further consequence of responding to coronavirus through shutting society down is that children and young people suffering from pre-existing mental illnesses now find it more difficult to get the help and support they need. Those who depend upon the routine and stability provided by schools, youth clubs and other local services have had the rug pulled from under their feet. The impact of this on individual lives cannot be overstated.

Mostly, however, children are resilient. No doubt many are currently enjoying time off school and the change to routine. The US study suggests that four in 10 teens now report feeling ‘more connected than usual’ with their families. Once restrictions are lifted, the vast majority of children will readily bounce back into their pre-coronavirus lives. But the danger is that, for a minority of children, the way they see adults responding to the coronavirus crisis will reinforce trends that had already begun to take hold: to be suspicious of other people, to prefer a virtual social life to a real one, and to retreat from the world rather than engaging with others in an attempt to change it. We must make sure this does not happen.

Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and director of the think tank, Cieo.

Picture by: Getty.

spiked needs your support

Defending liberty isn’t easy – especially in times of crisis, when freedom is so often traded away in search of security. But amid the coronavirus pandemic we at spiked have continued to speak up for our principles, calling for more scrutiny of the authoritarian measures being wielded over us and more debate on the best way forward. To continue to do that, we need your help. spiked is free and it always will be, because we want as many people to read us as possible. But to keep spiked free we rely on the generosity of our readers, particularly those who can give regularly. Even £5 per month can make a huge difference to us. We know it’s hard out there for many of you, now more than ever. But if you support what we do here and you can afford to contribute, to make sure we can continue to produce our free and fearless journalism for anyone who wants to read it, please do consider making a donation today.

Thank you! And stay safe.

Donate now

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Dominic Straiton

15th April 2020 at 1:57 pm

1) there will be another pandemic coming out of China in a few years
2) Smoking kills the virus in the lungs
Get your kids smoking.

Highland Fleet Lute

15th April 2020 at 3:31 pm

Stop scaring kids stiff about cigarettes.

Mark Houghton

15th April 2020 at 1:25 pm

“We must make clear to our kids that this crisis is not insurmountable.” – and your evidence for this
assertion is what exactly? Perhaps being anxious and scared is a rational response?

If I want unsupported assertions I’d read The Guardian

Mike Oliver

15th April 2020 at 2:16 pm

I don’t think it is an unsupported assertion.
Why should this crisis confound our collective creativity and determination when none of the past ones did? We’re still here aren’t we, and at least 99% of us will still be here once this pandemic is over.
Unless like Private Frazer from Dad’s Army you think “we’re doomed!”

Mark Houghton

15th April 2020 at 3:29 pm

We may or may not be doomed but I’m old fashioned – I like evidence when people make assertions. No such evidence was presented by you or by the author of the article. Your hopeful attitude does not count as evidence. I am sorry for using logic.

Mike Oliver

15th April 2020 at 7:41 pm

I would have thought that old fashioned people would count historical precedent as powerful evidence.
There have been numerous epidemics in human recorded history, and it’s fair to assume many more in human prehistory, and we survived them all. We have also developed more sophisticated epidemiology to mitigate the potential harm from this virus than at any other time in history. We have more scientists who are better informed and connected than ever before sharing their data to defeat this virus. That is in itself evidence. It may not be 100% proof, but it’s close.
I’ve studied probability theory and I can assure you if the bookies were open they wouldn’t even offer odds on us not coming through this crisis, because that would be a losing bet.

CR Ave

15th April 2020 at 5:30 pm

The evidence is every communicable disease in history as well as the lethality of this one.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.