When Boris Johnson announced the government’s decision to close schools, it certainly divided opinion in my house. My eldest child thought all his Christmases had come at once. But his younger sibling felt differently. He was quiet and clearly unsure about the global virus. As an online counsellor, I have seen similarly split reactions between the children I counsel. Half saw it as a wonderful opportunity, while the other half were suffering from increased feelings of fear and anxiety as they came to terms with the news.
Adjusting to Life in Lockdown
For so many of us facing an undefined stretch of time at home with our children in the coming months, managing a range of emotions is likely to be a big part of life. For some, the honeymoon period of home-schooling may well have been a roaring success, but what happens if the novelty wears off? For others, conflicts were inevitable, as everyone struggles to adjust to life in lockdown. As parents, we’re the ones who set the emotional temperature in our house and how we respond to our children will have a huge impact on their ability to cope. Here are some tips on how to support your children through this, and of course, maintain your sanity in the process.
1. Give them space to talk
If children raise concerns about the coronavirus our instinct may be to dismiss their fears, reassuring them there’s nothing to worry about before changing the subject. But this isn’t giving our children the space to talk through their anxieties. Which goes a long way to reducing them. By allowing our children to talk without interruption we are helping them to process their concerns.
As much as possible, just listen.
When we do talk, we should avoid questions which confirm our own ideas. So, instead of saying ‘are you worried about the coronavirus?’ try asking ‘how are you feeling about the coronavirus?’ or ‘is there anything making you feel worried?’ With my counselling clients, I also find ‘normalising’ their anxieties is very helpful. Reassuring young people that their worries are perfectly normal and understandable will make them feel less anxious and isolated.
2. Honesty is the best policy
Children have an amazing ability to find out all those things we don’t want them to know. Even in isolation, withholding the facts is unlikely to keep them shielded from the news and we may risk them questioning if they can come to us for the truth. By sharing what’s happening, in an age-appropriate manner, we will have more control over how they find out answers to their questions. I have heard many confused coronavirus messages from clients which tells me it’s extremely important to talk to children about it. I have found that sharing information on the percentages of those infected and educating them on who is at risk has actually helped to reassure my clients and given them a clearer perspective. (You can find accurate information on NHS 111 online).
Protect your Mental Health.
Though discussing the news with children is important, too much exposure can increase anxiety. Limiting how many times we check the news or social media will help protect our children from feeling overwhelmed, and will also preserve our own mental health.
3. Take care of yourself
In mental health training, the analogy of the oxygen mask on a plane is often used. In the event of an emergency, we must make ourselves safe first, in order to look after those around us. By recognising and processing our own anxieties about the pandemic, we are better placed to support our children. Talking openly and honestly to our loved ones is really helpful, and if that isn’t possible, telephone or online counselling may put us in a better place to deal with our children’s anxiety.
Preserve your Emotional Balance.
Our physical health is also important. Like my eldest, I’ve found the global uncertainty has put me in a mood akin to Christmas – the usual rules don’t apply, and healthy eating and exercise are on hold until normal life resumes. However, healthy eating and exercise produce natural chemicals which preserve our emotional balance, so I’m trying hard to live healthily and encourage my children to do so too.
4. Create a routine
I’m also having to resist the temptation to stay in my pyjamas and watch my favourite films all day. In the face of uncertainty, young people need more boundaries and structure than ever to make them feel safe. Creating a daily timetable, where they get up, get dressed and eat at the same times they normally would, will help give a sense of continuity and reduce feelings of anxiety.
Be Kind to Yourself.
As a former teacher, I should feel well-equipped to home-school my children, but even for a professional it still feels daunting. For younger children ensuring they practice a bit of reading, writing and maths every day is enough to stop them from falling behind, and for older children, self-directed learning will be nothing new. Filling the rest of the day with more exciting things they wouldn’t do at school could help them to see things more positively. However, if working from home means we’re handing them a screen, that’s okay too. This won’t last forever – they will be back at school soon. Guilt and self-criticism will only add to our anxiety which could impact negatively on the family dynamic, so it’s important we’re kind to ourselves.
5. Enjoy it!
Normal life will resume at some point. Ask children what they would like to achieve in the time they have off and add it to the timetable. Maybe they’d like to learn a new language or master the guitar, great things are possible with the power of the internet. This could be the time to get them enthused about one of your interests, like baking or gardening. In counselling, we talk a lot about ‘reframing’ – turning negatives into positives by looking at them differently. By reframing the current crisis as an opportunity, it will help reduce your child’s feelings of anxiety and they may look back on it fondly. Spending quality time together when possible will also make them more likely to reach out to you for help if they are feeling overwhelmed.
Create Incredible Stories.
Living through the coronavirus crisis has been compared to wartime Britain. Just as with war, there will be far-reaching implications for mental health. Being in such close proximity to our families for such a long time will be a big test, but by trying to encourage respect, patience and good humour, we will help to protect our children from anxiety-overload. By providing an environment which is safe and nurturing, hopefully, we’ll give them some incredible war stories, and grow closer as a family too.