5 ways to tackle students' Covid contamination fears

Tes speaks to an expert about what to do if a child develops an unhealthy obsession with avoiding Covid infection

Zofia Niemtus

Coronavirus and mental health: How teachers can help pupils who develop an unhealthy obsession with avoiding Covid infection

After almost a year of Covid-19 being a central part of our lives, it can feel at times like we’ve got used to this new, strange way of being. But that’s not the case for everyone – and it’s liable to change, particularly for young people.

Fears of contamination can lead to anxious, unbalanced behaviours, which should be addressed by teachers and parents. 

Dr Sharon Morein, a senior lecturer in psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, gives us her advice on behaviours to watch out for and how to have conversations around these complicated issues. 

Coronavirus: Talking to students about their fears

The most obvious tip is supportive communication. Any conversations with the child, or parents and carers, should be framed in a positive, constructive way. You need to understand their fears, which may include the fear of being contaminated or contaminating other people. We can’t see the virus, so that ambiguity or uncertainty can be quite distressing – but it's understandable.

Some people may be very worried about it, whereas others don't seem to have a problem at all, but a lot of young people will be somewhere along that continuum. Let them know that it's normal to be on there somewhere. 

Be prepared for feelings to change

Everyone’s different. Explain that just as different people have different eye shapes and different eye colours, how we cope with a particular situation will be different.

In March, somebody might have been coping brilliantly, but by the time September rolled around, they weren’t. Everyone is different, the circumstances are different and they can change over time. 

Don’t let guidelines become stressors

A lot of talk has been focused on people not wanting to follow the guidelines or trying to circumvent them. But it’s important to appreciate that there may be some children who are following the guidelines a bit too much.

Take the example of washing your hands: we know it’s supposed to be for 20 seconds, but maybe they're washing their hands for five minutes, or 10 minutes, and there’s stress associated with it. That’s a cause for concern. 

Be aware of when it’s becoming an issue

There are three key flags to watch out for in young people’s anxious behaviour – if it becomes chronic, distressing and/or impairing. It could be just a bad day or a bad week, and if so, you don't really want to intervene too much. 

But if it's chronic, becoming an issue, day after day, week after week, that probably means the young person might need help to manage their anxiety.

Work on reducing anxious behaviour

Excessive contamination concern can lead to what’s known in the literature as accommodation, which is where family will participate in those coping mechanisms, even when they’re not reasonable. For example, a child may be changing clothes every time they go outside and play in the garden, even when they haven’t seen anyone new, and be doing this several times a day. 

If somebody is stressed out about contaminants, the normal response is to want to help them to alleviate this feeling, but be mindful of when you’re shifting beyond being supportive. 

Another very common situation for children is reassurance-seeking. Again, it's very normal for a child to come and ask for reassurance from a grown-up, and it's absolutely normal for grown-ups to provide that reassurance. But again, it can become excessive, and then the reassurance isn't helpful. 

Then comes the question of what to do in those situations. The answer, which is a bit difficult, is to gradually stop doing it, even though it can involve the child initially being quite upset with not getting that reassurance.

If the behaviour is not excessive, of course, you want to provide reassurance for the child. But if it feels like it's chronic, they're doing it every day continuously, and not having conversations about other things, that is a sign that there could be an issue. Ultimately, it all comes back to that sense of balance.

Find more advice on how to help students in a mental health crisis here.

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Zofia Niemtus

Zofia Niemtus

Zofia Niemtus is deputy commissioning editor for Tes (Maternity cover)

Find me on Twitter @Zofcha

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