The disruptions caused by COVID-19 have the potential to affect children profoundly, particularly children who are already at risk of being marginalised. This includes children in families who are experiencing poverty, are homeless or are experiencing family and domestic violence. They will need financial and other support to help them manage the effects of COVID-19 and the restrictions that have been imposed. The Commission welcomes additional funding that has already been announced to address mental health, poverty and domestic violence.
Even before COVID-19 struck, children and young people in Australia have experienced unacceptably high rates of anxiety and mental health concerns. School closures, isolation from friends, disruption to routine, and heightened anxiety of parents and other family members, and the broader community, have the potential to add to many children’s feelings of anxiety and stress.
As the federal and state governments began introducing social isolation measures, former Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell highlighted the need for extra resources to support children and young people. Since then, the Federal Government’s announcement of $2 million to support the Kids Helpline and $6.75 million to Headspace has been a good starting point. Children and young people should be encouraged wherever possible to use these services.
Parents, teachers and carers also have an important role to play in supporting children’s mental and emotional wellbeing. It’s important to talk to children, listen to their concerns and give them an opportunity to express their feelings. Adults should try to remain calm, be honest and reassuring with children, and talk about positive actions children can take to keep themselves and their families healthy. There are useful resources explaining how best to talk to both younger children and teenagers about the virus.
Many children will be feeling the effects of financial hardship, as parents lose their jobs and must survive on reduced income for a lengthy period. Some young people who have been supporting themselves or contributing to the family income may also have lost their jobs, especially in the hospitality and service industries. This can have a big impact at the best of times-but families experiencing poverty will also have to find the resources to provide home schooling and access to technology for their children. It is important that all families in need can access the government’s extra welfare support system as quickly as possible.
Schools provide structure, care and sometimes meals for children in need. Any closure of schools will particularly affect children who are known to child protection services and others who live in chaotic or unpredictable circumstances. School gives professionals a direct line of sight to children, with a well-established escalation procedure when children are at risk. All this will be lost for a child if they are not in school. Arrangements need to be made so that these children are either able to attend school or receive extra support if they are unable to attend school.
Further, while for many children home schooling will be a successful learning experience, it is likely to present challenges for children who are already disengaged from traditional modes of learning, and for some children with disability who normally would access face-to-face learning supports.
Stress and confinement are predicted to result in an increase of family and domestic violence, with a likely impact on children. This is why the Commission has advocated for extra resourcing-including alternative, self-contained accommodation-for children and families experiencing domestic violence or homelessness. This may also include young people who due to the virus, are being forced into close quarters with families with whom they have conflict, including LGBTI young people.
Finally, the Commission is concerned about the impacts of COVID-19 on children and young people in any kind of detention facility, some of whom will have underlying health issues. Social isolation is difficult in such centres without having a punitive impact on children, which can harm their mental health.
Children are living through unprecedented times-routines have been disrupted, new strains will be put on families. Many children will be anxious and confused. Protecting them from the inevitable social and financial consequences of the outbreak must remain a top government priority.
We’re all in this together, and we need to make sure nobody is left behind, including children.
President, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko