2020 will go down in history as one of the most uncomfortable years in recent memory. The coronavirus has brought a strange new reality that is affecting everything and everyone. Families with children are experiencing even greater levels of stress and worry. Not only do the adults have to pull out all the stops to keep safe and sane, whether working in a challenging environment or stuck in isolation at home, but they carry the extra responsibility for their kids’ wellbeing too.
If you’re confused about how best to support your child’s mental health during this pandemic, making sure they’re OK emotionally as well as physically, you’re certainly not alone. Here are 7 suggestions that could make all the difference.
Communication is at the heart of nurturing good family relationships, and especially during times of crisis. It’s important to talk to your child about what’s going on and make sure the channels of communications between you stay open. Listen to your child and be patient to let them express how they feel without interruption or judgement. Whether they feel anxious, sad or angry, make sure you reassure them that whatever they’re feeling is OK.
Provide age-appropriate information about coronavirus – what it is, how you catch it, who is most at risk, how to protect yourself and others – and be prepared to answer lots of questions. You won’t be expected to have all the answers – here is a great kids’ fact sheet that might come in handy – and you can share your own fears and worries too. The important thing is to retain your composure and remain calm so you can reassure your kids that you will get through this together.
Regularly discuss together the importance of staying safe and what you can do to ensure you don’t get infected. For instance, teach your children proper handwashing etiquette, show them what a 2 metre distance looks like and get them to understand the importance of wearing face masks in public spaces. Complying with the science-led government advice is crucial, and it is up to parents to enforce discipline at home.
Of course, should anyone in the family display one or more of the classic COVID-19 symptoms – high fever, continuous cough, loss of taste/smell – you must self-isolate for 10 days and get a test. Results will normally be ready in 48 hours. Rapid COVID-19 tests such as this one which produces fast results in as little as 15-20 minutes are available privately. Children are more likely to experience mild symptoms, or they may be asymptomatic, but they can still be infectious.
Regular family routines
Anxiety levels can rise dramatically when the world as we know it no longer seems like a safe place. This makes it all the more important to champion the home as a place of sanctuary where life can largely carry on as normal. Keep as many regular routines going as you can to help your child feel safe and secure. From regular bedtime routines to eating meals together as a family or doing hobbies, sticking to these structures gives a sense of regularity and normality that all children need right now.
That said, in times of uncertainty it’s good if you can have some flexibility. Recognise the uniqueness of the current situation by introducing new ways of doing things or bending the rules a little. Whether you make it a thing to have once-a-week Deliveroos rather than going out for pizza, or regular movie nights in (rather than going out), it’s important to go with the flow to make the strange new reality not only more bearable, but to add some enjoyment into the mix too.
Checking your news exposure
Watching or reading constant news updates on coronavirus in general, and the actual number of infections and casualties in particular, can stir up feelings of worry and anxiety, both in adults and children. While it is undoubtedly important to stay informed, there is such a thing as too much news. Sadly, there are also unreliable information sources.
Reduce your family’s media exposure to essential information only in an effort to protect their mental health. Screen your news carefully to ensure you get factual information – official government and NHS websites are a good start – and banish news channels and publications that share false information or promote conspiracy theories.
Spending time together
In fact, reducing media exposure can have many other benefits too. With the children being at home more as a result of coronavirus restrictions, there is more time available to spend together as a family doing things with the kids that you perhaps normally wouldn’t have time for.
Positive activities that are calming for the mind and balm for the soul include cooking and baking, making music together, arts and crafts, cards and board games, gardening and outdoor play. Choose an activity, make it age-appropriate for your child and just have some fun. As a useful by-product, you might find it’s also a great way to create space for talking.
Fresh air and exercise are helpful for many mental health issues, stress and anxiety being prime contenders. If you can manage it, try to get your kids outside at least once a day. Family homes with gardens have the advantage here – you can pop outside for short bursts of exercise or a quick ball game whenever you need to let off steam. Or perhaps you can start a garden project that everyone in the family can get involved in? Whether you decide to grow your own vegetables or build a play area in your garden, there’ll be plenty for all ages to be happy about.
Older kids might prefer to go out. Perhaps now is the time to make sure everyone has a fully functioning bicycle for daily bike rides around the neighbourhood? Or invest in running shoes or hiking boots so that you can take the kids out to explore the local area on foot? Find an outdoor activity that your kids like and feel free to indulge them. The benefits in terms of physical health and mental health are undeniable.
Connecting with others
Finally, while family time is hugely important to help our youngsters through these difficult times, they also need to stay connected with their friends as well as family members who they can’t meet up with in person. Explore online platforms such as Zoom, WhatsApp and FaceTime to help your kids stay in touch. Of course, this will apply mainly to younger children – the older ones can probably teach their parents a thing or two about the latest social media techniques!
Visiting friends should be monitored carefully, with boundaries put in place to protect the whole family. Once these are agreed and followed, it is important to help your children stay connected with people they trust and are close to, to do things they enjoy doing and retain a sense of normality.