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How an octopus can help kids cope with COVID-19


Jessica Nelson
11 May 2020

As we collectively take the first tentative steps back to school after the COVID-19 lockdown, families are feeling mixed emotions.

For some, it will be relief – homeschooling has proved to us all that teachers are, in fact, super human. For some it will be nostalgia – if you get along, hanging with your family in activewear is a chill Sunday vibe all week! For others, looming job losses, an economy that has ground to a halt and the invisible but real threat of a COVID outbreak in your backyard means we are far from out of the woods yet.

For Professor Anne Graham AO, Director of Southern Cross University’s Centre for Children and Young People (CCYP), there’s a group of people whose voices are often not heard in the midst of all this – kids.

“The last school holidays were like no other for Australian kids. No hanging out with friends, going on family picnics or to the movies, playing at the park or visiting grandparents. It continues to be a testing time for everyone with high levels of stress and anxiety. Children are not immune from these effects,” she says.

Professor Graham is a specialist in the effects of change and grief who was awarded an Order of Australia for her groundbreaking work. She has developed tools to help build resilience in children in the face of major life events.

“While we have little or no evidence about the social and emotional impacts of pandemics on children, there is some research on parallel events like children’s responses to natural disasters and terrorism, that we can draw on,” says Professor Graham.

“Children need to be reassured about their safety. They need to have opportunities to ask questions, be given timely information in clear, factual ways that doesn't overwhelm them with detail, and be supported to focus on what they can influence, rather than what they can’t. These all reduce anxiety and promote coping.”

The CCYP has produced a tip sheet for parents and caregivers where one particularly surprising animal makes an appearance as a tool for coping – the octopus. Using this tool, children draw an octopus and then write an emotion they are struggling with (such as boredom, or fear) in the head. In the legs they write ways they can cope with that emotion, say by going for a walk, talking with someone, or even dancing like a pirate! By having the octopus in a visible place, they are reminded of things they can do when certain feelings start to worry them.

The CCYP at Southern Cross University conducts research on the rights and wellbeing of children and young people in families, school and the community. See more: