Written by Dr Sabina Dosani, MBBS MSc MRCPsych

Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist at Dr Sabina Dosani

Sabina is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist with many years of experience in helping children, teenagers and their families with psychological and psychopathological conditions. She regularly acts as an expert witness for the Family Court.

These are worrying times – these are worrying times for parents, but they are especially worrying for children and for teenagers. For most of us, it is the first time that we and our children are feeling under threat constantly and living with so much uncertainty. Children everywhere are missing their friends. They’re not able to see their grandparents. Some might be suddenly seeing one parent a lot less, or not at all. There are a few things that parents can do to support children’s emotional wellbeing during lockdown and social distancing.

When I asked my children, they were most worried that their father and I would die of coronavirus and that they would have to live in an orphanage, without their pets.

Keep talking to children about their worries

Keep talking to children. You can do this by talking quite casually about the changes due to coronavirus, ‘it’s strange that we can’t visit grandpa at the moment but we can send him letters.’ It is also a good idea to check in with children at least once every week and ask directly, ‘what’s worrying you at the moment?’ When I asked my children, they were most worried that their father and I would die of coronavirus and that they would have to live in an orphanage, without their pets. We were able to talk about how unlikely it would be for us both to die, but that even if we did, they would not go to an orphanage, nor be separated from pets. We talked about who would look after them. They were also worried about the scary things on the news, about falling behind in school, about their parents not teaching them properly and about the possibility of people walking too close to them.

As well as addressing the individual worries that my own children and other children express, I have been telling lots of children and their parents that it is normal to feel like this. I keep emphasising that everyone is feeling scared right now, but that this doesn’t mean that terrible things will happen to us. I recommend open conversations, but also focusing on balanced facts, like looking at the number of people who have survived, which goes up each day.

Expect some behaviours and problems to get worse

It is also normal for pre-existing problems to get worse for a while during these strange days, for some new problems to show themselves and for children to regress a bit. For example, my five year old, who has been dry at night for a couple of years, has had lots of nightmares, wet the bed a couple of times and started to play with toys she played with when she was younger. I think she is trying to get back to a safer time in her life. My older daughter, who is nearly nine, has cried a lot over small things that would not normally upset her. Many of the children I see in clinic have experienced a worsening in attention span, anxiety, distractibility, sadness, poor concentration and disturbed sleep. This is absolutely to be expected. Lots of things might be worse for a while, but it won’t stay like this. Many of these problems will get better with support from parents and other adults.

Talking to teenagers

Teenagers were never meant to be locked in with their families. Their job is to be forging independence. Many have the additional stress of not knowing what will happen with their education and their plans for the rest of this year are in disarray. Teenagers might not be as open about their worries as younger children, but they are more likely to open up if you go first: ‘I’m worried about grandma. Have you been worried about her too?’

Teenagers are generally really supportive of one another. Although it can feel as if they have disappeared into their screens, keeping them socially connected during social distancing is vital. Encourage them, if you can, to have a break from scrolling through news.

Making a list of what helps

With children of all ages, make a list of things that help them feel better. Almost inevitably, this will include doing something within their control, like baking, reading or writing in a diary. Some things might not be possible at the moment, but it might be possible to do a different version of them.

From this big list, aim to do three a day.

Three a day, while in lockdown, might be:

– What am I going to make today?

– How am I exercising today?

– How can I show kindness today?

When the ‘what ifs’ intrude

All the ‘what ifs’ run riot through children’s minds sometimes. What if mum gets ill? What if there’s no-one to look after us? What if dad loses his job? What if we can’t get the things we need? What if gran dies and we can’t see her? Children of all ages need a strategy for ‘what ifs.’ Tell them, ‘for now, we will just think about today. Your job today is to do today. We will deal with tomorrow when it comes.

Prioritise wellbeing

To stay mentally healthy, children (and their parents) need sleep, to eat well and exercise. Children need to be moving for about an hour a day. It isn’t possible for everyone to get their children outside as much as usual. Encourage them to join you in an online class or dancing to music. Many children (and parents) have disturbed sleep at the moment. It is more important than ever to have early nights, stick to regular bedtimes, involve them in cooking healthy meals. These sound like such simple things, but they are not easy. If you can prioritise a good night’s sleep, healthy eating and daily exercise, that is absolutely the best for wellbeing.

Home education

As if life wasn’t heard enough right now, school closures for all children except for those of essential key workers with no other option have meant that most parents are now educating their children at home. The advice I have been giving to clinical families, to my friends and to myself, because almost everyone seems to be feeling overwhelmed with resources, printing, downloading and teaching, is simply to do what works. Some families need a timetable, some structure to guide their week. Others have embraced outdoor learning, some are discovering unschooling, where children set the lead. Just do what works, for your family. If ‘what works’ is different in the households your children move between, that is absolutely fine. If you have a timetable, on some days the timetable will fall by the wayside. That is fine. For so many families, just getting through each day is an endurance. Schools will continue to send work, well- meaning friends will send many educational resources, but you do what works, whatever works for you. Try not to compare yourself to other families.

Look after yourself

This is hard. Parenting through the Covid-19 pandemic is the hardest parenting I’ve done. It’s hard because we are having to be parents and educators. Many of us are working from home or trying to care for elderly relatives at a distance. We can’t see the people who would usually support us and there’s nowhere to get away from it all. Enforced proximity strains all our relationships, even the good ones. Do at least one thing that is kind or luxurious, just for yourself, every day. For some people self care is a mindfulness app, or a zoom yoga class. For other’s it’s baking, painting or half an hour at the piano. You might not feel as if there is time, that it’s an indulgence, or that you don’t deserve it, but if you keep taking care of yourself, you’ll be a less stressed, more resilient parent for all the challenges that this pandemic brings.

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