Covid 19 is changing not only our lives but our children’s lives too. Helping children and young people to understand what is happening and navigate their feelings is a key role for all parents and carers. Many parents are struggling to know how to most effectively help their children who may be worried and confused. Please read on for some pointers to support your children’s emotional wellbeing at this stressful time for us all. This article offers general advice but is aimed mainly for the pre-adolescent. We will be sharing further tips on understanding and supporting teenagers in another article.
- Be kind to yourself – you only need to do a good enough job. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Resist the urge to be the perfect parent. It is not possible at the best of times, let alone right now. It is not possible to parent, teach and work at the same time!
- Anxiety is normal. Our children are used to life staying pretty much the same, doing the same things, going to the same places and seeing the same people. That has changed with Coronavirus and they too are learning how to get used to life being very different. We are all still finding our new normal. Children recognise when things are different and when you may be anxious. We should be prepared for some emotional changes in our children, whether it is more clinginess, problems sleeping, appetite changes, irritability or meltdowns. All these things are appropriate manifestations of a child who is unsettled by the changes in their lives. All children, however, will respond differently to this sudden change in their lives. Some children are naturally more sensitive and more anxious than others.
- Acknowledge your own anxiety. Children look to us to decide how they should feel about something that happens that is unexpected, difficult, or challenging. We are the first point of safety for them. They read us to see whether they should be worried. We can strongly influence how our children view this situation by the way that we come across. The good news is that with young children we can reduce their anxieties by managing our own fears and worries. Find good sources of support for your own emotional health. If children sense that you are already worried, they may hold in their own worries because they don’t want to overwhelm you.
- Lower your expectations. Make a realistic and honest list and cross off all the things that really don’t matter and agree this with your co-parent if you have one. Expect your children to test limits, to have meltdowns, to have worries. Don’t expect the children to always get on, not have an argument in front of the children, to be able to amuse themselves all the time, to not react to this sudden change in their lives.
- Create a safe atmosphere of openness and acceptance. We need to make it safe and possible for our children to tell us what they are worried about/how they are feeling, so we can help them through it. Allow questions and expression of feelings, resisting the urge to fix it for them. It is easy to dismiss our children’s worries for fear that talking about it might make it worse. When things upset our children, the overriding desire for parents is to try and make it better. Often we do this by focusing on the positives. Your job isn’t to make everything ok, but to help them to deal with when things don’t feel ok. These are skills that they can learn from this that will be useful for the rest of our lives. Notice and name your child’s worry. Normalize and validate these feelings for your child.
- Be curious. Talking is really important and won’t make it worse. Children are often very aware of what is going on around them and will inevitability be experiencing different reactions, thoughts and feelings. Perhaps just say ‘I wonder what you are thinking/feeling about this?’. Don’t underestimate the power of listening.
- Comforting our children is needed now as much as ever. Our role as parents is to comfort them when things are difficult. Where possible, choose connection, more cuddles and more one on one time.
- Provide information in a developmentally appropriate way. Provide information in a factual and simple way. Young children are egocentric. Their primary concern is their immediate world. Am I going to be ok? Is Mummy/Daddy/Grandma going to be ok? There are some nice resources to explain the virus it to young children. A free information book for children between the ages of 5-9 has just been published by the Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler and can be found here
- Limit access to information. It is really important that we switch off from the news most of the time. Try to avoid listening to news when your children are with you. If older children want to keep updated, use sources such as Newsround for information you know that you can trust. Less is more, so err on the side of being brief with any child, but particularly a young child. Answer the question that they are asking but don’t elaborate. Don’t volunteer more information than they have already shown an interest in.
- Follow your child’s lead. If you notice that your child is worried about it, follow their lead. If they look like they don’t want to talk about it, then don’t feel like you absolutely must, but offer them the opportunities.
- Expressing worries. Children can be encouraged to express their worries through talking, but also through drawing about how they are feeling. Some children find making a ‘worry box’ really helpful so that they keep them in one place and put a lid on them.
- Create new routines
Routines make children feel safe. Of course, routines may have to be adapted as we navigate a whole new normal but making new routines will be very important to keep our children feeling safe. Where possible, try doing things at the same time, maybe meeting up with friends virtually at the same times. Mealtimes and bedtimes are a really important part of everyone’s routine, especially at a time like this. Perhaps use timers as a fun way to stick to new routines and move to a different activity, room, etc.
- Have fun. One of best ways to support your child’s emotional health is to make sure they are doing things they enjoy. Perhaps now is the time to search through your cupboards to find games, books and activities you had forgotten about or didn’t get around to. Children often love discovering games and activities they have done before and these can be particularly comforting at a time like this. For the creatives among you, create a list of new things you want to try, there are lots of brilliant art, craft, music and sport ideas online. Of course, be kind to yourself and if this is not your bag, it is ok to recognise this and certainly don’t put pressure on yourself.
- Take a moment to consider how you want to look back on this period, and how you want your child/children to look back on this. Can we come through this as a family more connected? And remember, it is not possible to be perfect, but where possible choose compassion (to self and others), connection, love and patience. It will pay off!