Our ordinary world can be daunting and scary for children at the best of times. Right now, we are in the most extraordinary circumstances – circumstances that us as adults struggle to comprehend, so imagine how your children will be feeling.
Right now, children are more anxious than ever. There are a few key reasons for this which I will breakdown throughout this blog post. With each of these, I will give advice as to how you can help your child cope and manage each situation and all the negative emotions they may bring with them.
- Firstly, we are living through a time that none of us have lived through before. Children look towards the adults around them for answers and security. Right now, we can’t give that to them fully. We don’t have the answers. We don’t know if we will be okay. We don’t know if our communities will ever return to the ‘normal’ that we/they know.
Children also pick up on those vibes of ours. Stressed? They know. Angry? They know. Anxious? They know. Regardless of how well you think you cover your emotions, they know! The positive in this is that it’s not a bad thing for them to know how you feel. We can use this time to teach children how to regulate their emotions. We can emotionally coach them.
How do we do that? I promise it’s more simple than it seems, but as is the case with most things, it takes a lot of persistence.
When you are feeling something – verbalise it. ‘Mummy is feeling….’ ‘Daddy is feeling…’ ‘Grandad is feeling….’ etc.
Then you provide them with a reason (I’m aware we don’t always have a reason, that’s okay, we can tell them that). ‘I’m feeling that way because grandma got sick’.
Then we give them some form of coping strategy and/or solution ‘The good thing is that grandma is in the hospital with the best people! The doctors and nurses are taking very good care of her’ Additionally, ‘I’m going to go and read my book on the sofa for a little while, this will help me to take my mind of it’.
EMOTION ➜ REASON ➜ SOLUTION / COPING STRATEGY
This way we show the children it is FINE to feel anything. But we figure out the potential reason why we feel that way and then a solution/coping strategy to help us cope and manage. We don’t just feel something and react through negative behaviour (we don’t feel frustrated and start screaming and shouting). Children need you to help them learn the ways they can cope with their feelings. If not, they become frustrated and act this out through negative behaviour.
Try and take 10 minutes out of each day (bed time is a good reflective time) to discuss how they feel and how their day went. Make it routine to list 3 positive things they did within their day. Help them to label their emotions (they’re only children, they don’t know the labels yet) and give them child-friendly coping strategies. Talking is one of THE BEST coping strategies for them.
Some children may struggle to verbalise their emotions, try other ways such as writing or drawing. Finding some way for them to express how they feel is always important, as is them learning key ways to manage their emotions.
I like to use this clip from Inside Out to show children how to identify:
Trigger-Emotion-Reaction. *Inside Out is SUCH a good film to help children understand emotions!* We can explain to them that there is usually a trigger (reason) for us feeling the way that we do. If we can identify this, we can help ourselves manage it.
- Another reason that children will be living in a state of anxiety right now is the drastic change to their daily routine. Our brains store our routines in the ‘habit part’ of our brain (basal ganglia) – this means our frontal cortex doesn’t become drained by continuously having to think about what we are doing, what comes next etc – the frontal cortex has many other things to be thinking about throughout our day! Loss of routine means that the habitual way that we live is thrown out of the window and our brain has to work that bit harder to make sense of what is going on around us. *Note that the frontal cortex will be working super hard in all our children at this time – trying to make sense of this uncertain, different world – their brains will become tired*.
Routine also minimizes daily anxiety. When we lose our routine, the ‘fight-flight-freeze’ part of the brain (the amygdala) comes into action. This means the child may instinctively react to their surroundings through 1 of these 3 behaviours. It also means their anxiety is heightened. You can probably think of specific times when your child has become incredibly emotional over something, it could be in an aggressive way, emotional, or even through numbness. This is known as an ‘amygdala hijack’ – when a situation becomes so overwhelming that the child cannot ‘cope’.
Routine really helps to keep all these heightened emotions at bay, it allows us to remain calm.
What can you do?
Keep some form of routine to the best of your ability AND circumstances. Routine does not mean that you should have a regimented timetable in place that tries to completely replicate their usual school day. It means that you create your own and you discuss it with them. Whatever works for you and them is what is important here. YES exercise and activities are important ways of keeping your children stimulated and happy, but this is not possible all day everyday, especially if you are working from home. Take that pressure of yourself – remember – they know when you are stressed and it does affect them.
If you are going to try and keep anything the same, make sure their night time routine is as close to normal as possible, especially their bed time. This will heighten their chances of being able to regulate themselves properly throughout the day.
Create a routine and make it visual for them in some way and put it in a communal area.
-Draw it up on a piece of paper and stick it on the fridge.
-Write it up on a white board / notice board.
-Use visual pictures.
This helps to take away that anxiety and uncertainty about what their days now look like – this gives their brain more space to deal with their other emotions and concerns.
- Another reason children will become stressed and frustrated during this time is because they are isolated and away from their friends and additional family. The children see their friends every single day in school. For the older ones, they’ve been doing that for as long as they can remember…years! Even during the holidays, they can meet up with their friends and family but right now, this is not possible. We as humans are social beings. We NEED relationships and secure attachments with the people around us to develop and thrive. Good, positive relationships with friends and family help our brains to develop the feelings of happiness, security, belonging and love.
I know I’ve massively struggled during the last 2 weeks whilst isolating myself. I love being around my friends, family, colleagues and the children at work. I’m struggling not being around these people. Think how our children will feel – pair that with a total lack of understanding of what on Earth is going on right now – and you’ve got one very confused and lonely child.
What can we do to help them socialise during this time?
First of all, YOU should find time to communicate with your child. Talk to them, it doesn’t always have to be about their feelings, let it be about whatever they want it to be about (you’d be surprised about the totally random things they talk to their friends about throughout the day). I’m aware that for many of you, you’ll be incredibly stressed and feeling isolated yourself, but I can assure you that just chatting to your child will do BOTH of you the world of good right now. It will be good for you to get lost in their little world for a short time.
Next – find a way for them to socialise. We are SO lucky to be able to contact our nearest and dearest whenever we want to. Allow your child to call their family and friends, FaceTime them, Skype them…whatever way you choose, allow them to do it on a daily basis if possible. You could arrange with other parents/carers to set up group video chats with the children so they can all speak together as they would whilst in class.
Aside from this, please try and manage the amount of time they spend on social media, it can be damaging to their mental wellbeing at the best of times, right now it’s an incredibly negative and scary world in so many aspects…this can take over their state of mind…don’t let it. They might kick off, but you’re protecting them and in a few years time they’ll probably thank you for it.
- EXAMS! Okay, so we know that all the exams have been cancelled for this year. That’s SATs, GCSEs and A-Level exams. This is causing so much frustration for our young people. Whatever stage of education they’re at, these exams were the biggest test they’ve faced so far in their education. They’ve had their teachers and parents/carers drumming into them how important they are for their life and their future, and suddenly they’re gone?! So, many of you will have told them they NEED to do well in order to be successful people, successful adults…but now those things that they believe they need are gone. So where does that leave them? Confused more than anything. Will they ever be successful? Will they achieve all that they want to achieve in life? Will they make YOU proud? Or will you be disappointed? What exactly will happen now?
Of course, as adults, we know that this will work out okay in the end, these children will go on to have successful careers and this will not make them failures. However, they cannot view their situation in that way right now. They don’t know that. For many, they’ve never been in a completely uncertain and new situation like this before.
How do we make them feel better and realise these exams don’t really matter?
Don’t try and make it all better! Don’t continuously tell your child that it will all be okay. You know that this will only end one way anyway – ‘You don’t understand! You never listen! This never happened to you so how can you tell me how to feel?’
Yes, you can reassure them that they can and will still be successful. Yes, go ahead and explain that those exams are not the ONLY important thing when it comes to achieving whatever we want to achieve in life. DO NOT tell them these exams mean nothing.
They did and they do.
Allow them to express how they feel and don’t make them feel wrong for doing so. They’re not being dramatic and they shouldn’t feel like they should ‘just get over’ this. These kids have been studying so hard for so long with this as their end goal. The end of Primary, the end of Secondary, the end of College. This is what they’ve been working towards.
Just listen to them, what do they need from you as their parent/carer right now? Show them you are trying to understand and just be there for them – a shoulder to cry on.
My advice for parents/carers and their wellbeing…
Please, please, please remember that YOU need time and space. You need to take a breath in the middle of this chaos. You need ‘me time’ and time to recharge yourself. After all, the more worn out and stressed you become, the more worn out and stressed your children become. It’s not all about them all the time, but I know for parents…it kind of is. Take care of yourself and NEVER feel guilty for doing so. Everyone needs to do whatever they can to remain sane through a time like this. Your brain can’t feel relaxation if it is overcome with guilt. Repeat after me: I deserve that hour in the bath! I deserve that glass of wine tonight! I deserve to lock myself away and read my book for a while!
If your children try to get your attention during this time, speak to them! Tell them you need to fill up those batteries, you need down time – most children will understand this and respect that you chose to speak to them about it before it got to the point of ‘Just get out of my bath!! I want to be on my own!!’
I like to use computers/iPads/laptops as an example for them to understand…
‘So, our bodies are like your iPad. I started this morning on 100% battery, but throughout the day I’ve been working really hard and my charge has been going down and down. I’ve opened lots of tabs and I’m starting to get tired, lag a little and I need to take time to close those tabs and recharge.’
Throughout all this, please remember that you are your child’s primary educator, however, you are not their class teacher. The way your child will behave at home will be very different to what it is in school – especially during a time like this.
Every day I have parents/carers speak to me about how frustrating it is that their child is an ‘angel in school’ but a ‘little so-and-so’ at home. THIS IS NORMAL. We only start to worry if a child doesn’t push the boundaries at home and totally shuts down. Don’t think that it’s you and you are the problem – it isn’t you and you are not a problem. You may think ‘HOW does his teacher deal with 30 of him?’ – the teacher doesn’t deal with 30 of him the way you know him. They’re all different in school.
If you cannot educate them to the standard you’ve set in your head, you have not failed. Your child will not reflect on this time in 10/20 years time and judge you on how well you became just like ‘Mrs/Mr Smith’ from school. They will remember the times you took out of your incredibly hectic and stressful day to show them compassion, show that you understood their anxieties and tried your best to comfort them through the strangest time in their life. They will remember you working hard at your job, or working hard as their parent/carer. They will remember that, as a family, you pulled through and survived the best you could.
Take time away from social media, stop comparing yourself to the other parents and carers and stop trying to cram in every worksheet that you have ever seen on a ‘free resources for home-schooling’ list.