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How can I help my nine-year-old son who has become depressed during lockdown?

It is understandable that he is upset and depressed at his change in circumstances

Question: The extended lockdown is really affecting my nine-year-old son, who is an only child. He desperately misses his school and his friends, not to mention all the activities and family visits we depended on before lockdown.

He used to be such a happy, enthusiastic and social child, and now he mopes around a lot of the time, grumpy and just wanting to watch screens. It is like he is depressed, and it breaks my heart. Before lockdown he had a great life, with sports and activities and friends visiting. Now the days are hard for him.

My husband is a nurse, and I try to do office work part-time from home, so we are busy, but we do our best to keep a good routine with school work and play for him and Zoom calls with friends and family. But he is giving up the things he loves. He used to play guitar at home all the time (he had a great teacher); now he won't pick it up even though he is here all day. It is a daily struggle to get him to go out for a walk to the park, when before he was an active outdoor child. I find myself rowing with him more than I used to, which is the last thing I want.

With the restrictions lifting slightly, I did arrange for him to meet a friend in a park for physically distant football. He did like this, but when he came home he burst into tears, saying it wasn't the same, as he wished his whole team was there.


Answer: Your question highlights how the lockdown has been difficult for so many young children. The shutdown of their schools and their social lives, not to mention the losses of the many out-of-home sports and activities that are so crucial to their long-term education and development, is beginning to take its toll. The situation can be particularly challenging for families with only children who might have relied on the routine of school, after-school activities, family visits and play dates to keep their children entertained and motivated. It is also particularly hard on parents like yourself who are under pressure with work and trying to do their best for their children in challenging circumstances. While a couple of weeks stuck in the company of their parents might have been an adventure, the long-term nature of these restrictions are now negatively impacting children and their parents mental health.

Understanding your son

It is understandable that your son might be feeling upset and depressed at his change in circumstances. He has gone through a major disruption to his life and his previous routines have been upended. Just like adults, children can feel depressed and go through a process of grief when they experience such disruptive losses. It is understandable that he might have burst into tears after meeting his friend. Even though this was something enjoyable, it also reminded him of all he has lost. Though it might be hard to hear, it is good that he was able to share his tears and tell you how he was feeling. This will help him feel better and gives you the opportunity to support and comfort him. Indeed, his grumpy moods are just a further signs of his distress. Understanding him this way can help you respond with patience and gives him space to share how he is feeling.

Focus on small steps

People who are low or depressed can sometimes find it hard to motivate themselves to get going and to do even small things that might help. It is understandable that your son might have got out of the habit of playing his guitar and that he might find it hard to get up and go out for walk, even though these are both enjoyable things that might lift his mood. In helping him get going, it is important to be patient and persistent and to focus on small steps. It sounds like you successfully get him to go out for a walk each day, so continue to persist with this. Keeping a consistent routine about positive daily events can make these easier for everyone. If you always take a walk after breakfast, or always have a family game after dinner, then the routine makes the habit and reduces the daily battle.

Make plans and goals

Having positive goals and plans is important to mental health. As the lockdown begins to ease, sit down with your son and plan positive events he can look forward to. Build on the success of the playdate with his friend and make plans to arrange others. Could you include other children and start a weekly or even daily routine around this? As the range of travel opens up, plan also some longer trips to different areas with your son and arrange family visits where possible (keeping the physical distant guidelines). Continue to make positive plans in the home with your son, whether this is deciding to cook a different meal together, try out a new family game or even just to listen to different music after dinner. Focus on setting small achievable goals and building slowly.

Seek support

Though we are in lockdown mental health and family support services are all still operating on phone or online. Parentline continue to operate their helpline (1890927277) and Barnardos have set up a special Covid-19 crisis line (1800 910 123). If you remain worried, you can also contact your GP about getting a referral to primary care or child mental-health services.