COVID-19 is here to stay and has changed how we live and interact with our communities… for now. The Corona crisis is likely to affect us in many different ways: physically, emotionally, economically, socially, and psychologically. As we physically distance ourselves Anxiety is being released into our social networks, conversations, and homes. Fear and anxiety are inevitable. They are normal responses to challenging situations infused with danger and uncertainty. However, the more we focus on what’s not in our control, the more hopeless or anxious we are likely to feel.
What kind of person do you want to be in the face of this crisis?
What do you want your child to remember in years to come about this moment?
Most children (under the age of 11) will not remember many details about the Coronavirus as they get older. They will remember how their home felt during the coronavirus pandemic and how the adults around them responded. Staying at home can be a deprivation and hardship, or we can turn it into an opportunity to connect with our children and help them develop resilience and skills for coping in the face of adversity.
When Anxiety is around it can be difficult to think straight. How you feel will have an impact on your ability to respond to your child, answer their questions, and find ways of overcoming Anxiety. We all have more control over our behaviour than we do over our thoughts and feelings.
It can be useful to deal with our thoughts and feelings so that we can connect with our bodies and the ‘doing’ rational part of our brains. The first step is to acknowledge that the feelings, emotions, urges that are showing up inside you are there, but noticing them does not mean you have to give in to them. Try the brief exercise below to help you:
Silently repeat to yourself, I can’t lift my arm. Say it over and over in your mind 10 times.
Continue to say it.
Now lift your arm.
What did you notice? Most people will say they noticed a brief pause before they lifted their arm. That is because we have conditioned ourselves to believe what our brains say. However – we are not your thoughts and feelings. Notice that they are there (eg. “Oh hi Anxiety, I see you…”) and then move on to connect with your body, which will ground you in the here and now.
Mindfulness is a great tool for this and you only need to spend a few minutes doing a brief exercise to really feel the benefits. Here is a simple exercise that can take you ‘out’ of your mind and into the here and now, physically in your body. Give it a go!
Slowly press your fingertips together or squeeze your hands into a fist and release three times
Slowly push your feet into the floor
Stretch your arms and neck
Look around the room and notice what you can see that is white in colour. Find 5 things.
Notice what you can hear.
Notice what you can smell or taste or sense in your nose and mouth.
Take a slow deep breath – in through your nose and out of your mouth.
Take another slow deep breath - – in through your nose and out of your mouth for a little
Take your last breath with a long slow breath out your mouth making a gentle audible sigh.
Once you acknowledge feelings and ground yourself in the here and now it is possible to think more clearly about what actions you want to take. This may include supporting your child in overcoming Anxiety and answering their questions.
Anxiety in Children: What does it look like?
The first step is to catch Anxiety and notice it for what it is when it shows up. This is sometimes easier said than done.
Our expectation as adults is often that children have ‘worrying thoughts’ and seek reassurance and ask lots of questions. Although this may be true for some older children with good verbal ability, Anxiety wears many masks in childhood and often looks very different.
Many children are ‘body talkers’ and communicate emotion through bodily symptoms. Anxiety may show up as tummy aches, headaches, dizziness and pains and aches. These symptoms can be difficult to disentangle from a ‘physical illness’.One way of separating physical ill health from Anxiety is to check for a high temperature, other physical symptoms of illness (like a cough), and frequency/pattern of the symptoms. Anxiety is most likely to re-occur in a regular pattern (at the start or end of days or prior to certain activities or seeing certain people) and will not be accompanied by a high temperature or fever.
Anxiety can also look like extreme behaviours, including intense anger, tearfulness and clingeyness.. Some children may struggle falling asleep or start having nightmares more frequently. They may also have toileting accidents during the night where they have been dry for a while. These behaviours may be an expression of feeling overwhelmed
Children’s Understanding of illness
It can be useful to understand a little about brain development and what children understand so that you can tailor the information that you give and the words that you use when talking with your child.
Young children, between the ages of 3-7 years of age, have a simple understanding of their bodies based on what they can see with their own eyes. Their brain is only developed to the point of concrete thinking (i.e. I see something therefore it exists) so they do not understand things that they cannot see, such as internal organs or germs. To young children, illness happens either by magic or as a punishment (eg. “You will catch a cold if you don’t wear your coat”). This ‘magical thinking’ means that you may need to mind your words more carefully and avoid familiar expressions and phrases that children may misunderstand.
Between the ages of 7-11 years of age children have a better but simple understanding of their body and internal body parts such as the heart, lungs and digestive system. They have some understanding that germs exist and can make people ill so washing your hands and having good hygiene is important. This means they have a better understanding that illness doesn’t happen by magic. On the other hand, this understanding can create other challenges. As children begin to understand that illness can be contagious, some may fear that they can catch conditions which are genetic or impossible to catch by contagion (e.g. diabetes).
So lets talk about the C word…
It can feel difficult to have a conversation about the Coronavirus, particularly if talking about it brings up Anxiety for you. But remember - children know about the Coronivirus already, they have heard it been talked about around them and are likely to have spoken about it with other children too, so don’t avoid talking about it.
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As much as you can, start the conversation about Coronavirus at your child’s starting point. Most children will start a conversation by making a comment or asking a question about it. Approach what they say with curiosity. Check in with them about what they have heard about the Coronavirus, what they have noticed around them and what they understand.
Where did you hear that?
What made you see that made you think of that?
How did you come up with that idea?
I heard you say you are worried. Can you tell me what ‘worry’ means for you? What does it feel like when you are worried?
Listen and ask them questions.
The first step before answering is to sit and listen. For young children, it can help to do an activity while talking rather than just sitting together so something like drawing or doing some Lego can be useful in helping your child relax into the conversation. Using drawing can also help your child express themselves without words (e.g. “What do you think the Coronavirus looks like? Shall we try and draw it?”) and it may help you explain things to them too.
Validate any feelings they share (e.g. “I am sorry you won’t be seeing your friends for a while. I know you feel sad. I am here for you”). Accept that the feelings are there and sit with them a while. You may not be able to change their feelings of sadness, anxiety or frustration because in the current situation these feelings are valid and appropriate responses (and you may be feeling them too!) but you can help you child cope with these feelings and the first step is to accept that they are there and they are okay to have them.
Answer their questions honestly and with simple facts
Young children are very accepting of what you say and they take things at face value. Be honest in your answer and use simple facts being mindful of the language used. Explain changes as they happen, don’t wait for your child to hear about it in a conversation.
“I will be working from home and you will not be going to school for a while. Things will feel different for a while but we have a plan”
It is okay not to have all the answers, most of us don’t fully understand the Coronavirus and your child does not expect you to be an expert! Be honest.
“I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe I can check and see if someone knows and get back to you?”
“That is such a good question but I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that yet. When someone knows I will find out and tell you”
Help them take action
Remind your child of the practical things that you are doing (e.g. keeping them safe, getting food and making a plan of activities) and what they can do to stay healthy and stay positive. This may include washing their hands, physically distancing themselves from others outside of the their home environment and engaging in meaningful activities (e.g. play, reading, music, physical movement and exercise).
What else can you do to support your child?
Some actions may be straightforward and sensible, like disinfecting hands by washing them regularly and practicing social distancing for the greater good of your family and our communities.
It may also be useful to consider what you can do to bring more joy into your home and create memories you want to remember out of this unique experience we are going through. I have added some ideas below but this is not an exhaustive list.
Schools closing has made some parents feel like they have to become experts in home schooling. But as psychologists, we know that the best outcomes for children come from learning within what Vygotsky called ‘the zone of proximal development’. The idea is that children learn best when working together with others in collaborative tasks, and it is through collaboration with that children learn and internalise new concepts, psychological tools, and skills. So this could be an opportunity to shift away from focusing on ‘grades’ and ‘achievement’ into learning through doing practical tasks and being curious.
Some ideas of tasks to do with young children may include baking (numbers), drawing, crosswords, dot-to-dot (shapes and geometry, colours, motor skills, writing), reading (vocabulary, learning, creativity and fantasy worlds), using play dough and building blocks (topics such as geography, history and science can be replayed with them), getting their toys out and using them to work out Maths problems, retell a history topic etc… And don’t forget to play music, dance, build dens, do some exercise such as yoga and get your bodies moving too! Use your creativity and if you get stuck, I have outlined some resources that you may find useful (see resources link on my website for more information).
Create a ‘Sensory Kit’ for your Family
Stimulating our 5 senses can really help to shift the mood and the atmosphere at home. You can try and create a ‘sensory’ toolkit that has items that you and your child like and have this ready to use somewhere (this wont work if you have to go round the house collecting items!) This can be particularly useful when things feel more busy or emotions are running high and doing the simple mindfulness exercises above (for you and for them!) just wont cut it. Some ideas for a sensory toolkit may include:
TOUCH – Objects that feel nice that you can hold while ‘coming back’ into your body and acknowledging those difficult feelings. These object may bring you or your child a sense of calm or safety. For a young child that may be a soft toy, blanket or comforter. For you, this might be a stress ball, or a small stone or bead.
“I know you are feeling upset. Why don’t we sit together for a while. Shall we get the blankey out for you to hold while we do that?”
SIGHT – Something you can look at that reminds you of being loved, supported and safe. For your child this may be a soft toy and for you this may be a photo.
SMELL – Smells can be very powerful ways to shift the mood. Think about walking into a bakery with fresh bread or a spa with scented oils. Both of these situations will trigger different physical reactions, both can be powerful. You could try a scented candle, some incense or ambient spray for your home. You can also try a scented cream (for you and/or your child) or a pillow spray for the evening.
TASTE – Something different to taste can be helpful at times when feelings are very strong but this is particularly useful for adults. Try a mint or a sour sweet.
SOUND – A song or a playlist that soothes you or brings happiness and joy. Line up podcasts, nursery rhymes, audio books etc… that you can play when things are getting difficult to either calm or lighten up the mood.
ACTIVITIES – That bring you joy or relaxation. It can be useful when emotions are running high to do something physical. This may be going for a walk, doing silly star jumps and hops, dancing to the music, singing loudly, doing some yoga, lying down on the floor while looking through the sensory toolkit or even jumping in the bath. Changing your physical state will trigger a shift in mood and for young children this can be particularly powerful.
I hope this small toolkit of ideas will be useful to you in navigating the ‘emotional storms’ that may lay ahead of all of us. I hope it can offer you some resources that can support you to be the parent you want to be during these challenging times so that you can create meaningful memories for your child.
Come and chat to me
Twitter #AskDrMDC every Wednesday there will be a Q&A form 8-9pm