Change is stressful, most people have experienced this. But what makes change more stressful is not knowing or understanding why things have changed. For young children, the idea of a viral pandemic is a hard thing to understand and perhaps you have decided it is too frightening of a concept to explain. Young children (0-10 years) struggle to visualise a large global community or lives outside their own. It isn’t until the age of 3-5 that most children start to develop something called Theory of Mind; the understanding that the people around them have their own thoughts, feelings and memories independent of their own. For a child to comprehend reasons for quarantine and the changes it causes is a big ask.
For young children, all the stress and worry that you as adult feel is intensified by the lack of understanding of why it is happening. Imagine that one day your S/O or parent said to you that we are no longer going to work, no longer seeing grandma and can’t leave the house. The reason they gave didn’t make very much sense. They gave no time frame and no choice. Personally, I’d think I was joining a cult or being punished. But children aren’t great at expressing this worry, complex emotions are hard to explain even for adults. When vocabulary doesn’t reach that far, children tend to internalise and cope in other ways. This may be by acting out, shutting down or unusual behaviour like not eating or sleeping.
Before I start, when confronted with my own ethics, I must be honest. There is a chance that some of the effects of quarantine cannot be avoided. These are strange and unprecedented times and you as parents as well as our countries educators aren’t fully sure how to proceed. That being said, I still want to share my best knowledge and advice with you.
I’m not going to make a long list of activities you can do with your children; the internet is full of those. Instead I want to discuss techniques to look after your child’s mental well being and to limit stress. So, let’s look at keeping routine, the importance of free time, the benefits of praise and future visualisation.
Just as I’ve discussed before, keeping the normal routine is so important when your days are empty. The same goes for your children, if they get washed and dressed before breakfast on a school day, no breakfast in pyjamas. Keep having lunch around the same time as school lunches (this helps with keeping sugar levels even as well) and bedtime is still the same. Sticking to a routine gives structure to a day, allows a child to feel more grounded and mark the passing of time with events. All this helps reduce that stress from change I mentioned earlier, whatever you can stop from changing is a good.
All that being said, you don’t need to fill every minute of the day with activities. Free time is important to a child’s development; it promotes independence, self-learning and exploration. At schools and preschools, children are given lots of time in the day to be their own master, whether that be at play time or lunchtime, in between lessons or as a reward for finishing an activity early. Despite your best intentions, filling a child’s every minute may be doing more harm than good. This gives you some breathing room and takes the pressure off, it also could be a good time to observe what your child chooses to do when they are in charge, they might surprise you.
Next let’s talk about praise. Hopefully everyone has a lovely habit of praising their child lots and lots, wonderful for self-esteem, trust building and other psychological terms blah blah. But at the moment, it is more important than ever to tell a child that they are doing the right thing. They are in uncharted waters and so it is vital let them know that their response to this lock down is a good response. That confidence can be the best stress killer for a child; it goes a long way to know that in this strange situation the way they are coping is the right way. Tell them over lunch, during activities, during their free time or before going to bed. Just picture how it would feel if the person whose opinion you valued the most told you that you’ve had an amazing day and they are incredibly proud of you.
The last thing I want to discuss is future visualisation, or a fancy way of saying something to look forward to. It maybe telling your toddler that you are going to watch their favourite movie tomorrow night or your preteen that they can bake a cake over the weekend. Something exciting for them to visualise happening in the near future. This helps break up the days and stops them blending into one. A healthy sense of anticipation can bring such an energy into life. Seeing as you can’t tell them when things will go back to normal, try and create something to anticipate.
Finally, and most importantly, listen to your children and give them time to process and explain these complex feelings. I believe that every single one of you is doing your best and that is all anyone can ask for. We can’t be perfect every day, no matter what the internet tells us. Find the balance between looking after you and looking after the others around you.
The long and short of it:
· Young children struggle to vocalise their stress
· Keep a routine
· Allow free time
· Keep praising your child
· Find something to look forward to