When we turn on the TV today, there will be one subject dominating everything – the Coronavirus pandemic. This of course is a very immediate, serious and worrying health concern, but how does it affect our children who are hearing the news, seeing our own anxiety and struggling to manage their own fears? The world has changed in a very short space of time and adjusting to it can be difficult for everyone, but for children, making sense of the world they now find themselves in can be overwhelming.
When faced with a threat, our logical brain or thinking brain, which manages decision making, thoughtfulness, judgement and self-control, can be taken over by the emotional, impulsive and irrational parts of our brain. This means the decisions we make, the things we say and the reactions we make are often illogical, irrational and impulsive. It can mean that children’s behaviour can be more challenging, that you are seeing more tantrums, meltdowns and emotional outbursts and our reactions to them are different, more emotionally charged and less consistent.
How can we, as parents support our children to manage their feelings, without letting our own anxieties have an impact on what we say? When we are anxious, supporting children with their fears, stresses and worries is even harder. Here are 5 basic steps all parents can take to support their children, and themselves at this time:
1. Set Routines
In a world that now appears to be very different, routines are important. Maintain routines and introduce new ones that perhaps tie in with the school day, if your child is school age. Routines feel safe and secure and enable a child to predict what will be happening next. They can bring a sense of order when everything feels chaotic and give your child and you something to focus on. This doesn’t mean you have to schedule every minute of every day, but by having set parts of the day such as mealtimes, bed-times etc –your child is able to predict what will be happening next and feel more secure.
2. Talk with your child
You know your child better than anyone else, what they can understand and how they process language and information. Make sure the language you use is simple and age appropriate – what you say to a 5 year old will be different to that of a 12 year old. Answer any concerns they do have honestly and calmly – even though you may not be feeling that calm yourself.
Think about the language you do use with your child, words such as panic, frightened, scary, alarmed – all evoke high emotions. Being “concerned” is much easier for them to hear than “terrified”. Understand that not all children will want to talk about it – go at your own child’s pace.
Tell your child why they are doing something, rather than what might happen if they do not. “We are staying indoors to keep healthy and make sure others keep healthy too”, is far better than, “You might get sick if you go out”.
Answer the questions that do come up, but don’t give them so much information that it is overwhelming. If you don’t know the answer, tell them, but say you can find out. Be prepared for and take time to think through an answer. When a child talks to you about what they have heard, perhaps on the news or overheard from others, always check with them first what it is exactly, they have heard and understood and what they really want to know. Often, we jump in too quickly, particularly when we are stressed and give sweeping statements, with little thought.
3. Recognise and support emotions
Let your child know that what they are feeling is normal. Being worried or scared at times like this are normal responses. Recognise and acknowledge their feelings, letting them know that this time will pass.
Mindfulness can be a great way of bringing children, and parents, back into the present. When our brains focus on the future and the unknown, it can be overwhelming and frightening. There are some great apps for mindfulness techniques, but here are some for younger children which you can build into your day:
Super Hero Stretches: In a calm, quiet space, encourage children to follow your actions as stretchy superheroes. Superman – stand with feet slightly wider than your hips, clench your fists and reach your arms out above you, making your body as tall as possible. Wonder Woman – stand straight and tall, with legs wider than your hips. Place your hands or fists on your hips. Ask children to make up their own and you follow their instructions.
Spidey Senses: In a calm space, ask children to turn on their ‘spidey senses’ of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch. This encourages children to pause, focus their attention on everything that is going on around them and become aware of what their senses are telling them.
Walkabout: Go on a walkabout in your house or garden to discover toys, objects, leaves, birds, bugs, insects and other animals and to use all their senses to find them. This encourages children to focus all their attention on what is going on around them and to become aware of what is happening in the moment.
Mindful Jar: This shows children how their intense emotions can take hold and how they can soothe and calm them. Partially fill a large clear jar with water. Add a big spoonful of glitter glue – or glue and dry glitter. Add some glycerine so the glitter takes longer to settle. Replace lid securely. Shake to swirl the glitter and talk through how the glitter is like their thoughts and feelings when they are upset, worried or angry – it swirls around and makes it difficult to see everything clearly. Discuss that being still settles the glitter and the water becomes clear again. Talk through that our brains work the same way – when we feel upset, stressed or angry, being still allows those thoughts and feelings to settle down.
4. Find ways to socialise
Children will be missing their friends. Find ways for them to socialise on line – build this in to their day, alongside the exercise, home schooling and any other activities. This will help them maintain friendships and feel more connected. It will also help them to understand that they are not alone in what is happening – their experience is being shared across the globe. Remember, you need this too otherwise the four walls can start to close in.
5. Be kind to yourself
It is a difficult time for us all so remember to be kind to yourself and be realistic. Carve out time in the day where you do something for you, even if this means a bit more screen time for the children. Focus on what feels right for you and your children, managing what you can, and don’t feel guilty that you are not all signed up for experimental jazz lessons and yoghurt making classes!
Sarah and Michelle run a company called Purple Parenting, offering behaviour and sleep support through individual work, groupwork and workshops. Contact us through our website, facebook message or email on firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange your free telephone consultation to help with behaviour, selective feeding and fussy eating, sleep, tantrums, aggression, anger, anxiety and more.