Coronavirus: children and young people’s views on what it means to be ‘vulnerable’

During lockdown, children and young people are facing great challenges. Some children and young people are at particular risk during the Coronavirus pandemic. Here, children and young people share their views on what being 'vulnerable' means to them.

What does it mean to be vulnerable in lockdown?

Children and young people differ in their perception of what it means to face vulnerabilities. One explained, ‘it means that you need help’, while another highlighted a vulnerable person is someone who ‘has to be more careful about things’. However, in the context of lockdown it was commented that, ‘more people are becoming more vulnerable and exposed’.

It’s important to recognise that perceptions of vulnerability are dynamic, and part of this is their capacity to shape children’s very sense of self: I think a lot more people have begun considering or finding themselves as vulnerable.’ Some thought the term ‘too widely used and with too little consideration’.

Many highlighted the relationship between vulnerability and health. On the one hand, some young people identified that health issues were the basis for feeling especially vulnerable. For instance, one young person told us ‘I am more vulnerable…because of my Type 1 Diabetes’.

However, other young people criticised the way that COVID had seemingly reduced concern about vulnerability to physical health:  ‘it’s become more focused on those who are physically vulnerable to COVID and not always those who are vulnerable in a different way’.

Another young person argued that such an approach represented a narrowing of awareness and lack of concern. Another explained ‘it should not be confined to physical vulnerability, as mental vulnerability is also a type of vulnerability as well’. Another response reinforced this, clarifying there are ‘many situations where people are vulnerable that don’t necessarily seem it, for example someone could be struggling with mental health but not tell anyone’.

However, being vulnerable is something children and young people felt they have in common: ‘I think all children are in some respects’.

Being called vulnerable can cause children and young people to feel vulnerable

Young people also reported that hearing themselves labelled as vulnerable left them feeling more anxious. A young person said, ‘being termed more vulnerable makes the entire situation much scarier’.

Another young person explained:

‘Being labelled vulnerable can heighten this sense of fear and terror, and yet, they can do nothing about being in a vulnerable category’. As such, being labelled vulnerable emphasises young people’s feelings of powerlessness

Being lonely and being vulnerable

Seeing friends and family less has made ‘it more isolating for us and makes the scenario more scary’.

As lockdown eases and some are able to see their friends, others will not be able to. A young person explained this situation makes them ‘feel trapped and much more limited in their ability to do things others are doing’.

Another highlighted, ‘not being able to see friends and have any time away from their family home makes it more difficult for young people’. For some children, circumstances at home are not safe, meaning they face risks when being confined to the home. Additionally, seeing friends and gaining more of a sense of independence is important for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Lockdown and mental health

Some young people highlighted the connection between being vulnerable and their mental health. One wrote that lockdown has ‘made me have a higher level of anxiety and left out of discussions and not heard’, linking being excluded from discussions and anxiety. 

Some children and young people noted how mental health and being vulnerable are closely tied: ‘we have been ignored and have a high level of anxiety and mental health issues’.

Feeling ignored

Young people mentioned that lack of communication from services and decision-makers increased their feelings of anxiety and vulnerability.

One young person highlighted:

‘For someone young, when the whole world changes overnight it can be very scary. Nobody has tried to explain it in a child-friendly way which would have eased young people’s anxiety’.

Others reiterated this, ‘nobody speaks to us or lets us know what is happening other than our parents’ and ‘there is a little accessible material that I have found that explains why we can go back to school and yet I can’t meet with my friends in a group’. One young person felt, ‘you often ignore children and young people with additional needs’, silencing the wide-ranging experiences of those with special educational needs and disabilities.

This lack of communication ‘makes things stressful’ and ‘the lack of clarity and uncertainty for everyone makes things difficult’. It has not only left them feeling anxious, but also feeling ‘abandoned and confused and scared’.

Supporting vulnerable children and young people

During lockdown children and young people have had mixed experiences with the support they have received, or have yet to receive. Somebody explained, ‘I was told a month ago that I would have a meeting with my tutor to discuss how I was - this still hasn’t happened’, and another highlighted support ‘in a school setting’ is ‘easy to apply for but extremely difficult to get – they’re oversubscribed’.

Another said they ‘had a lot of help from the foodbank and social workers/individuals calling up to check how we were doing’ but one explained, ‘I feel ignored and feel like I am interrupting them [school staff] too much’.

Children and young people have highlighted how their perception of being vulnerable has changed, with many factors contributing to them feeling vulnerable. With local authorities and frontline services facing considerable pressure, it is important that children and young people receive the support they need. As one young person requested, ‘listen to us. Talk to and work with us’.

Charlotte O’Halloran is Participation Project Assistant at the Council for Disabled Children

Living Assessments is a five–year research project on children’s health and social care funded by the Wellcome Trust in a partnership between NCB, University of Cambridge and University of Kent. The Living Assessments project supported the development of this blog.

The John Ellerman Foundation supports organisations to create positive change, allowing organisations to come together to tackle disadvantage, divisions and inequality. The John Ellerman Foundation supported the development of this blog.

Further reading

The terms ’vulnerable’ is highly debated in academic literature. For further reading on this see:

  • Caroline King (2018) It depends what you class as vulnerable’: risk discourse and the framing of vulnerability in health visiting policy and practice: Families, Relationships and Societies, vol 7, no 1, 39–54
  • Sabine Andresen (2014)  ‘Childhood Vulnerability: Systematic, Structural and Individual Dimensions’ Child Indicators Research - The official Journal of the International Society for Child Indicators 7: 699–713
  • Elina Virokannas, Suvi Liuski & Marjo Kuronen (2020) The contested concept of vulnerability – a literature review, European Journal of Social Work, 23:2, 327-339
  • Kate Brown, Kathryn Ecclestone, and Nick Emmel (2017) ‘The Many Faces of Vulnerability’, Social Policy & Society 16:3, 497–510