Like the summer of 76

James Hempsall
Friday, March 27, 2020

The effects of the coronavirus on children’s wellbeing needs careful attention and considered behaviours from all of us. We need to support children with safety and trust. As adults, workers or parents we should offer simple information, by being honest, available and present, and answering questions.

I remember watching the news as a child. I was aware of it, thanks to John Craven and the BBC children’s news programme Newsround, I had a reasonable grasp of current affairs. The image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, known as the napalm girl, was well known to me. A stark illustration of the horrors of the Vietnam war. But that was happening thousands of miles away to people that seemed very different to the world around me. A world that was comparatively safe and happy. Whatever the worst life brought, we as a family were not at war, nor in pain.

The summer of 1976 still enjoys legendary status. It was a very hot and long summer. There were water shortages caused by the drought, stand pipes in the street. We had to leave a country park because of a no grass fire. On our family holiday in Cornwall we got badly sunburnt shoulders. My brother’s toy machine gun, left in the car whilst we were at the beach, melted in the heat. We returned to the car and had to wait quite a while, in our short trousers, for the plastic car seats to cool down before we could sit down. Suddenly it felt like dangerous things could happen. And they did.

As a psychotherapist I am hugely aware of how early experiences, trauma and key events shape a person and manifest in phobias, mental health and choices in adulthood. What may seem at first like an extended holiday for children off school or pre-school, the current situation can instead be an unsettling period. Routines have been disrupted. Whole families are staying in at home. Childcare arrangements have changed. Extended family members are unreachable. Normal hobbies and activities are out of bounds. People are wearing masks in the street. The supermarket shelves are empty. Shops and restaurants are closed. There is an increased emphasis on hand-washing. Life is very different. And we don’t know how long for. The effects on a child’s emotional and mental health could be long felt.

The news media is very different too. My childhood access to the news was limited to a 15-minute bulletin Monday to Friday, if I remembered. Miss it and there was no play back, no iPlayer, no video recording, no internet. I worry about the huge amount of news information supplied on a loop by the TV, mis-information on social media, and on the web. What is also concerning is how children are accessing the information directly on their devices, and sharing it between each other in every way.

All of us, adults, workers and parents need to continue to take time to help children make healthy sense of what is happening. There’s no blueprint for these conditions. We haven’t experienced them in recent modern life. There are some important principles to follow:

  • Children’s thoughts and feelings need to be acknowledged. Take time to show you can see or hear how children are feeling.
  • It is okay to discuss emotions, fears and questions. And we should be committed to providing answers. Gone are the days when such things were feared or brushed under the carpet.
  • It is really important to focus on controlling what can be controlled, this is a great way to reduce anxiety or that out of control feeling. As adults, we also need to manage how we deal with our responses, our fears around money, food, health and friends and family. We need to be aware of how children may be absorbing these as they observe our every move and monitor every word or at least the tone of what we are saying or doing.

I commend Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg for holding a press conference specifically for children last week. For half an hour she and her team answered questions submitted by children. She told them it was normal to be scared and that everything would be okay. This is not only amazing leadership and confidence, it is a preventative action. It is early intervention in practice, supporting children with their emotional wellbeing. It is something the UK government should do now. We will experience the significant ripple effects of this pandemic for months and years to come. My eight-year-old self knows that to be true.


James Hempsall is managing director of Hempsalls

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