We are living in challenging times, extraordinary times. Challenging times to parent. As, like everyone, I reel with the shock of the pandemic and its implications I’ll share with you a few of my thoughts:
The great blessing of COVID 19, as horrific as it is, is the fact that all the evidence to date suggests that for children it is usually mild and rarely fatal. What wonderful news for parents! I keep reflecting on how different, how much worse, this situation would be if that wasn’t the case. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a child surviving COVID 19 is guaranteed (the survival of our children is never guaranteed) and, certainly, there are children with pre-existing conditions who are at increased risk, and their parents are rightly concerned. But for the rest of us, it does mean that our child’s chance of survival into adulthood is about the same as it has always been. In such challenging times, this is a great comfort.
It is so important for us to remember this. Not just for our own peace of mind, but so that we can keep in perspective the great need to do our bit to protect the specific children who are vulnerable, as well as vulnerable adults. For most of us, the most important task that COVID 19 gives us is not decreasing our individual risk of getting COVID 19 per se. Rather, it is about doing our bit to slow community transmission and to protect the vulnerable in our community. That is, the best way to think of the changes to our lifestyles is that we are doing what we can to limit community transmission, not trying to protect ourselves and our children from COVID 19. Assume you will get COVID 19 at some point and act in such a way that ensures that when you do, you won’t spread it. A pandemic is exactly the kind of situation in which understanding and prioritising the needs of the community, not ourselves as individuals, will lead to the best outcome. Not just for the community, but likely also for ourselves as individuals.
For most children, the threat of COVID 19 is not to their life. Rather, the threat is to their greater family (the potential loss of grandparents or great grandparents in particular), their mental health and their education. So, as parents, it is incredibly important that we are mindful of these threats too. It is important that we ensure that:
- Our children continue to feel basically safe in the world, after all, they ARE.
- We moderate the discussions that we are having in front of our children as much as possible (and yes, that is sometimes challenging!), so that our moments of pure terror in all of this (and yes, we are all having those) are not shared with our children as moments of pure terror. It is okay for children to know that adults also feel fear and sadness. In fact, it is beneficial. But seeing their parents fall apart emotionally in and of itself is VERY scary for children.
- We maintain our children’s social connection at social distance through modern technological solutions. You might find it heartening to know that I’ve seen attachment bonds DEVELOP over Skype in young children (aren’t kids incredible?) so we should be able to maintain our children’s social connections. If you have an older child, try setting up tele-play (yes I’m coining that term) with friends and family. Are there board games that both families have, for example? Could the board be set up at both homes and played jointly? And, of course, online computer games take on a new life of their own now too.
- Remember the lifelong importance of your child’s education and make it a priority. Depending on where you are, and how the situation unfolds that could include: continuing to send your child to school (if schools remain open or re-open in your area), agitating for excellent online/distance education solutions or simply ensuring that your child continues to progress in their school work. For primary school children it is crucial to keep up daily reading, writing and mathematics, in particular.
- Consider what knowledge of COVID 19 you can give your child. Making children feel safe and empowered isn’t just about protecting children from the scariest adult-directed news or adult conversations, it is also about arming them with the right kinds of knowledge to understand what is happening. I’ve started a COVID 19 project with my eldest daughter. She is keeping a diary of a child’s experience of this amazing historic event. We’ve been talking about what a virus is, how vaccine’s work and why social distancing is important. My aim is to help her to feel empowered by accurate knowledge, and feel safe in the protection of modern medicine. We’ve also made COVID 19 cupcakes (cupcakes to look like the COVID 19 virus with choc chips inside to represent DNA and pretzels dipped in icing and sprinkles stuck into the top to represent the protein spikes. They were delicious!). There are great resources appearing online every day. A little googling will help you find what’s right for your family.
Above and beyond all of that, is it vital to make mental health a priority, both your child’s mental health and your own. The very steps we take to halt community spread of COVID 19 are far from ideal for our mental health. Social isolation is terrible for mental health. Many of us are experiencing other threats brought about by COVID 19 including job loss and threats to our businesses. For some of us, COVID 19 is escalating existing stresses, including martial problems or even domestic violence.
What exactly prioritising mental health means in these times will depend on your family’s individual situation. But here are some ideas to consider:
- Limiting your news intake to specific times of the day. Notice your reactions to the news. If it is perpetuating a cycle of stress, set a specific time of the day for news and contain it to then. Moderate your child’s news exposure. This doesn’t mean that children can’t be given some knowledge about what is happening. But the news is created for adults (and it even stresses us!) and there is rarely the kind of context that helps children to understand and digest the negative news in a helpful way.
- Ensure that you stick to reliable evidence-based news sources and stay away from news sources that over-play the news with dramatic stress-inducing headlines. Personally, I’m sticking to the ABC news here in Australia.
- Exercise daily or as much as possible and encourage your child to do the same. This is more challenging for many of us in our current situation and many of us will need to discover new ways to exercise or for our children to exercise. It is worth making the effort. Exercise has enormous benefits to mental health and stress management. Dancing is a fantastic exercise for adults and children when you are stuck indoors. If you are absolutely time poor, even something as simple as intense (truly intense—go for it as much as you possibly can) exercise for a 3 minute stretch can be a stress reliever.
- Mindfulness is simply the art of keeping your attention in the present moment in a kind and compassionate manner. If you are able to, consider integrating mediation or mindfulness activities into your routine. We live in a time when guided meditations are readily available. Try an app (I like Smiling Mind or Buddhify), or do a google search to find the many options on YouTube or try one of the meditations I’ve recorded and made freely available on this website. Many of us parents are too time poor to do regular dedicated meditation sessions (don’t worry, I can’t manage it anymore either), but remembering to perform household tasks or exercise mindfully can work wonders as well. Children may enjoy mindfulness practices from primary school age and up. Again, there are many freely available YouTube options for mindfulness exercises for children. Children often prefer physical mindfulness exercises such as yoga. Even young children can be supported in mindfulness with activities like: blowing bubbles together, noticing sounds around them, noticing the sensations of play doh or sand or mindful colouring in.
- Consider building relaxation into your routine. Remember, relaxation isn’t about fighting stress, but about allowing your body to wind down and restore an equilibrium. At this time we are all receiving extra messages of fear and threat. So also taking extra time to allow our bodies to wind down at the end of the day, can help maintain equilibrium. You might like to do specific relaxation exercises like progressive muscle relaxation or abdominal breathing. Again, like meditation, we are fortunate to live in an era where guided relaxation exercises are readily available with a little googling. You might also like to simply build a relaxing activity into your day like a warm bath, or time to read a favourite book. Notice what is relaxing or soothing for your child. For children, focussed time with their parents and physical affection is often the best source of relaxation.
- Use music to support your mental health. Consider regularly playing positive, up-beat music or relaxation music, children’s music, or perhaps (like me!) you are the kind of person where a bit of sad music is actually helpful when you are feeling down yourself. Notice the effects of music on your own mood and the mood of your children and remember to turn to music to support everyone’s mood.
- Keep up the hobbies you can or find new hobbies. This is going to be a very individual thing. Think about what you enjoy doing or what you’ve enjoyed in the past. If you are really stuck, turn to google and find out what other people are doing. There are already oodles of ideas for activities for children on the internet a google away. The important thing is to remember to keep your life and the life of your children fun.
- Maintain social connections as much as possible through technology, both your child’s and your own. Our social lives are now a whole lot smaller and this isn’t good for mental health. Fortunately, technological solutions can be helpful here. But it does need to be prioritised.
- Connect with nature in whatever way remains possible for you as these events unfold. Time spent in nature has been shown to support mental health. I know that we’ll be having lots of picnics in our backyard in the upcoming months.
- Choose shows, movies and books that support your mental health and your child’s mental health. Again, this is individual so notice the effects of media and books on yourself and your child. Personally, I find that media and books with uplifting messages where the characters face challenges but ultimately succeed are helpful in times of crisis (Harry Potter, anyone?). I find that plenty of comedy is always helpful in a crisis too.
- Use social media wisely. Never has the positive and negative sides of social media been more apparent! It is a wonderful way to stay connected in these times but it can also lead you into a black hole of stress. The only way to deal with this is to carefully notice its effects on you and to use it wisely. If your child is on social media, support them in making wise choices too.
- Remember the power of little things. Little things, like putting on our favourite song at the end of our work day or drinking the morning cup of coffee on the porch in the fresh air can really make a difference to our mental health. We usually think of the big stuff (much of which we now cannot do!) but all of those little things really add up.
- Find little ways to take care of each other. Again, we often think of the big stuff. We might think the best way to re-invigorate our marriage, for example, is to arrange for a date night (pretty tricky right now!). Yet, the littlest of changes: remembering to ask your spouse how their day was and actually listen to the reply or thanking your partner for their efforts when done regularly often have the biggest effects.
- Alongside the social isolation, many of us are spending more time in closer proximity to our immediate family, our spouse and our children, and we are doing it with a level of pressure as we try to maintain working from home, or even support older children with schooling. It is easy for the increased stress and pressure to spill over into negative interactions that slip into negative cycles. The best way forward is to deliberately cut the others some slack. Anthony Biglan calls it ‘stepping over the aversives of others’. It means that when another person engages in a stress-induced bout of aversive behaviour, instead of leaping in with your own aversive behaviour, ignore it. When both parents in the household are doing it, it can really help to reverse any negative cycles, especially when it is coupled with finding little ways to take care of each other.
- Many of us are working from home. If you are, then finding a way to end your work day and wind down ready to focus on home time again can be helpful. Whatever you can do to keep the clear division in your mind can help.
- Remember that an important part of the balancing act of parenting well and maintaining your own mental health so that you can go on parenting well is knowing when to make something a priority and when to lower your expectations of yourself and your child a little. So ease up on yourself in whatever ways you can. For children, remember, it is often a good thing to preventatively ease up on the demands you make on your child. That is, if you know they are having a hard time, exhausted or feeling stressed, then easing up on some of your expectations, and focussing on taking care of them is a good thing. An easy way of thinking of this is changing your expectations to expectations that they CAN meet. However, this doesn’t mean giving in to bad behaviour like tantrums. You’ll just ensure that there are more tantrums to come! So, declaring that today’s a day of board games and Disney movies before crankiness escalates = a good thing! Giving in to a full-blown tantrum by giving your child chocolate for a moment’s peace = guaranteeing there will be more tantrums to come!
Take care everyone!