Looking after Children’s Mental Wellbeing
The stressors of the last few weeks and the consequences of COVID 19 are posing a threat to both parents’ and children’s mental health. Many parents report an increase in anxiety and low mood for both themselves and their children. As social isolation becomes the new ‘normal’ for now, we are all adapting to this significant change to our lives.
To help our children to adapt, we need to understand how anxiety and fear are not our enemy, but are positive and designed to protect us.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is normal and anxiety about the Coronavirus is expected and appropriate. Generally, anxiety can help us achieve important goals and is our mind’s way of alerting us that something doesn’t feel right, or to threats or danger. Appropriate anxiety is good – and is important to keep us safe and in this instance help us to think about our actions, protect ourselves and others and maintain social distancing.
The problem arises when this leads to worst case scenarios. This becomes excessive worrying – and overprotecting ourselves. Reasonable anxiety is unsettling but motivates us and makes us mobilise our inner resources. Excessive anxiety results when our ‘alarm’ that something isn’t right goes off when there is no immediate threat or danger. This results in us feeling out of control, being overwhelmed by uncertainty and feeling powerless. Added to this are feelings of insecurity and for some, feelings of intense loneliness and worry about others who are alone at this time. This is often associated with low mood and anger that life has changed so much.
We all respond to excessive anxiety in one of three ways:
Fight Feeling angry and irritable that things are not as we want them to be.
Flight Avoiding situations that make us feel anxious. Retreating from anxiety provoking situations.
Freeze Feeling panicky and stuck.
- Physical responses – concentration, sleep, an inability to relax, feeling easily fatigued, tense muscles, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, feeling sick, stomach pains, headaches, trembling…
- Thoughts – we may have irrational thoughts and fears
- Emotions – we may feel irritable, sadness, panic, feeling out of control
- Behaviours – we may become short-tempered, avoidant, generally stressed.
20 Top Tips for Supporting Wellbeing:
Children are often more resilient than we think. Not all children will be anxious and many may actually be enjoying the reduced pressure and increased family time of being at home.
This list is not a set of instructions but rather a guide from which you can pick and choose what feels right for you and your children. These suggestions can be adapted to the age and developmental stage of your child.
- Anxiety is a sense of feeling out of control. We need to support our children to have a sense of control – children get this from consistency and a sense of routine – and adults around them remaining as calm as possible. Try and focus on what you can control…
- Minimise watching the news – Try to watch it only once a day and be mindful of who is watching with you. When issues are raised on the news, try and have an honest conversation with your children so that they hear the facts from you.
- Be honest about what you don’t know.
- Be aware of the discussions you are having in front of your children or in their presence on the phone. They listen to everything and will pick up on your fears and anxieties.
- Be patient with yourself and encourage kids to do the same. Fear and some anxiety are expected.
- Encourage kids to talk about their feelings. This includes both the good feelings (under the circumstances) and the more unsettling feelings. A feelings thermometer or feelings memory game can be a good way to introduce this. You can use your own feelings as a starting point but try and focus on the facts rather than the worst case scenarios. Normalise their feelings – explain that a bit of anxiety, low mood and anger is expected. Give the tools for expressing and managing these such as keeping a diary and some of the suggestions contained further down this list.
- It is okay to talk to your children about your feelings – model being authentic (“I also feel worried sometimes”) and resilient (“We will get through this together”).
- Distraction is a way to stop thoughts. It is useful to try and keep things as busy as you can. Using meditation exercises, games and stories can all be helpful for younger children.
- Doing things that your child enjoys – This distracts them and is also a protection against low mood. This can include baking, drawing, arts and crafts, trampolining, reading, playing with pets etc. It is a good idea to create a list of activities together that can be added to and stick it up on the fridge or their bedroom wall as a good visual reminder for them.
- Reach out to help others if you can – it will give you and your children a sense of connection and control. This can be proactive or something small like putting a teddy or pictures in the window for other children to enjoy when walking outside your home.
- Keep a routine. Many children like predictability and will miss the consistency of school. Creating a routine can help structure the day for them. Make sure they have reasonable bedtimes and wake up times and that you encourage them to continue to do all self-care routines every day.
- It may be useful to have a broad checklist of things that can achieve every day. Include work, fun and chores. This gives a sense of purpose and a sense of accomplishment.
- Exercise is brilliant for anxiety as well as encouraging general emotional wellbeing. Ensure that you adhere to social distancing when doing this and if possible, exercise at home or in your garden.
- Mindfulness is a very useful tool and there are a variety of apps available for beginners. Anxiety is usually focused on thoughts about the future – so it makes sense that drawing our attention to the present can help alleviate it.
- Anxiety can affect our breathing and make us feel panicky and short of breath. Breathing exercises are very helpful for slowing this down and encouraging calm.
- ‘Worry time’ is a technique of scheduling worry to a particular time of day so that it does not take over all of your thinking. The idea is that you schedule a time to worry so that the rest of the day you can try and ‘put off’ worrying to give it your full attention at worry time.
- Notice positives in all the difficulties – It is a great idea to add at least one thought a day to you ‘grateful for…’ list.
- Keep in social contact with others –and encourage children to text or video call at least one person a day. Explain that other people will also be feeling isolated and will be happy to receive the contact.
- Put down your phone. Even though you need to remain socially connected and you have a lot more time to spend with your children, identifying 10 minutes of special time to be with them can help them to feel more connected to you and less demanding of your time when you need to work from home or do chores. See the blog on ‘kindling connection’.
- Be kind to yourself and encourage your kids to do the same – be more flexible. Adjust your expectations for work, screens etc. You have never done this before and there are no rules – just suggestions to support you and your children in getting through these unprecedented times together.