Kari Sutton

Kari Sutton

With the Coronavirus causing disrupted education, economic havoc and unprecedented lockdowns around the world it’s very easy to feel incredibly overwhelmed. Children have had a ringside seat watching their parents come to terms with school being cancelled, having to work from home, in some cases losing employment altogether, and being cooped up in isolation that seems to have gone on forever. This stress is trickling down to our children and having a substantial impact on their levels of wellbeing. 

How children react to these stresses is different varying on age, younger children may demonstrate signs of regression such as wetting the bed, temper tantrums, battles over food or bedtime and they may be more scared or anxious when separating than usual. Older children may be more moody, angry, short tempered and on edge and could also be fearful for their health or the health of people closest to them, parents, or elderly grandparents. As parents, we need to view these responses as normal reactions to very abnormal, challenging situations that have created a perfect storm of stressors. The children we care so deeply for have been placed into a fight or flight response, so what can we do to support their psychological wellbeing?

We need to tune into our kids needs and help them turn stressful situations into opportunities for growth. Over the past century scientists have studied resilience in children and research has shown that certain conditions help children adjust well and other conditions compound a child’s distress. The following suggestions will provide you with practical strategies that increase children’s resilience during these challenging times and reduce the negative impact of the pandemic. 

Limit news exposure

We need to turn off the constant bombardment from all forms of the media as it’s simply going to make children more worried and anxious. Frequently stories on social media and the internet can be misleading and incorrect so we need to be the source of information about the Coronavirus for our children. The continuous onslaught of the 24-hour news cycle can become very overwhelming for both us and our children so take a break for your own wellbeing. I’m not saying we have to be ignorant or switch off all media entirely I simply want you to be aware of where you’re getting your news from and be very selective about your media diet and that of your children.

Be calm and reassuring

Before talking to your children about what they are experiencing and feeling you need to firstly ensure you’re aware of your own levels of anxiety or fear and manage these before you speak to your kids. Parents need to be the safe calm adults leading their children through this time of uncertainty as when parents are calm and reassuring your children are more likely to be calm. If you are anxious, or frightened, they will pick up on this energy and emotion and respond accordingly. Just as you would in any other difficult situation keep adult conversations amongst adults. Panic from parents becomes panic for children so role modelling a calm measured response is essential. 

Help them manage their emotions

When children can label their emotions and talk about the big scary feelings, they are having these will dissipate more quickly. As adults, we have the words to describe our feelings our children don’t. We need to help them develop a broad emotional vocabulary so they can label the feelings they’re having. Neuroscience research has shown that when people can describe and label their intense feelings, this has a calming effect on their nervous system and helps them recover from upsetting situations or incidents more quickly. 

Give them a sense of control and power

Children feel empowered when they know what to do if they start feeling worried or anxious. Help them focus on what they can control and strategies they can use to manage their anxiety. Generate possible solutions to the problems they identify and help them come up with a list of strategies they know will work for them to help manage their anxiety, some useful ones I have used with kids are:

  • slow deep breathing – breathing in for the count of three, holding for the count of three and breathing out for the count of three
  • having a specific calm down spot where they feel safe
  • squeezing something – playdough, a stress ball, silly putting
  • drawing or colouring in

It’s important for parents to help children feel connected and safe, and to understand that this difficult time will pass. We can help them develop skills and strategies now that stand them in good stead when they inevitably encounter future challenges.