Coronavirus and your family
The end of this week will mark six weeks of lockdown; during which time we have been asked to ‘stay at home to save lives’ in an attempt to minimise the spread of the Coronavirus. The initial shock and for many, anxiety, of our lives being turned upside down has now, for most of us, faded. The excitement of an extra long Easter Holiday (particularly for our children), is in the past.
At the time of writing this article, there is still considerable uncertainty. ‘How long will lockdown continue for? When will children be allowed back to school? When will we be able to return to work?’ There is an increased emphasis on loosening lockdown without any clarity about how and when this might occur. For most children and young people, spending considerable amounts of the day working from home on their own, without the buffer of being able to leave their homes, see their friends, or engage in co-curriculum or out of school activities or sports, and with no end in sight, is beginning to take its toll.
Now more than ever, it is important to be aware of our mental health and below, I have outlined some simple tips on how families can continue to support each other during these unprecedented times.
Keep to a routine
It is likely that by now, you have developed some kind of new normal in your household. But why is having a routine so important? Having a routine, so the world has its familiar things as well as its uncertainties, feels helpful to us all at the moment. Clinical evidence also suggests that children’s emotions, including anxiety, are well regulated by having structure in their lives. With significant changes to our daily and weekly routines, it is important to keep sight of what family life feels like and what you can continue to do. These can be the things that make life feel ‘normal’, which is essential at the moment.
As a family, it is helpful to try and stick to the same routines as you always have done. Get up at the same time, have breakfast at the same time, and start the school day at the same time each day. Create time slots for mealtimes, homework, friends (even if via social media), TV, exercise, etc. This routine can shape family life. But remember to be realistic about what you can achieve and don’t put added pressure on yourselves
It can be helpful to differentiate the working week, and the weekends. Where possible, put the schoolbooks or work files away, and plan different ways to spend your time. Have things to look forward to. Perhaps spend time together planning what you will do together (and separately) at the weekend.
Be alert to how other members of your family might be feeling
You will probably be spending more time together as a family than you ever have done before, because of home working, school closures, and other public health measures. Although families are well placed to support each other in these uncertain times, it is absolutely normal for family members to fall out and disagree with each other, particularly as they are spending so much more time with each other than they would do normally.
Be aware that different people show their emotions in different ways. Young children are more likely to exhibit their emotions through their behaviour and putting aside time to play with your child (allowing your child to lead) may help to identify what their concerns might be. Older children may be more able to verbalise their emotions and openly talking may help bring big worries to the surface. Sharing your own worries may also be helpful, as long as you are also clear about how you manage your feelings. For example, if distracting yourself helps you, then it may help your child. But be aware that something you find distracting (eg., reading), may not be so helpful to them.
Remember, that for children, their bedrooms are usually their sanctuary. Respect their privacy and allow their room to be their domain over which they have some control. For older children, perhaps relaxing rules about social media to enable them to have more virtual contact with their friends whilst they have lost the ability to have physical contact with them.
Take steps to look after your own mental health
It is important to remember that the most important thing to our children’s sense of well being at this uncertain and potentially stressful time, is for us, as parents, to remain as calm and steady as we can. It is essential that we take extra care of ourselves and the advice that we are being given to ‘survive lockdown’ (get outside, stay connected, keep to a routine, keep a good sleep schedule, exercise regularly), is particularly applicable to parents. Think about who is in your network of support, and if you need to, ask for help, from friends, family or neighbours, even it that help may now come in virtual form.
Living with anxiety and worry over a period of time is likely to have an impact the wellbeing of us all. Explore ways in which you – as individuals, but also as a family group – can take care of yourselves. Think about which self-care strategies you already have, and whether you need to add to this. Examples might be going for a walk, gardening, exercising, baking, watching a movie, listening to music, and enjoying a meal together. As important as the time spent together is also making sure you have time on your own and if your child communicates to you that they need some time on their own, then it is important to respect that too.
Remember, it’s ok not to be ok…
There are going to be days when this new normal feels ok, manageable, and maybe even preferable to our lives before (I for one, am not missing my hour long commute in rush hour traffic to my clinic in Petersfield). But there are also going to be days when life feels very difficult within your family. It is important to remember that it is perfectly normal to feel sad or helpless during times. It happens to everyone.
When our children are upset, we have an over-riding desire to want to try and make it better. Often we can do this by focusing on the positives, offering cheery platitudes and using humour. Sometimes this can be helpful, but sometimes just acknowledging how tough things are (including for yourself), can help to validate the emotions your child may be experiencing.
Talking to your child about their experiences; being curious and using open-ended questions to understand their true feelings can be very helpful; asking questions such as ‘What’s the thing that’s most on your mind right now?’. For younger children – keeping track of their sleeping and eating may provide good insights into how they might be feeling. For older children, recoginising their feelings, the losses they are experiencing (however small or trivial they may seem), listening and acknowledging, will help them to open up to you. If your child identifies a problem, for example, ‘I miss my dance classes’, it may be worth exploring whether they want to problem solve the issue with you, or just want the space to be sad about it with you.
Given the nature of the threat we are facing, fear and anxiety are adaptive responses as they alert us to the fact that we need to be taking appropriate action to keep ourselves and others as safe and healthy as possible. But fear and anxiety can quickly escalate and reach a tipping point beyond which they are no longer helpful and can affect us in negative ways.
Mindfulness helps us improve our ability to recognise and understand our own personal signals that tell us we’re close to our tipping point. We can think of mindfulness as being like our own personal ‘fear and anxiety thermometer’ helping us get to know our own warning signs and recognise them as they’re kicking in. Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to respond by taking steps to settle and soothe our nervous system, which in turn enables us to think more clearly, make better decisions and respond as opposed to react.
It is natural to feel worried about the potential long-term negative impacts on the current situation on our children’s development. But rather than focusing on the things that our children may miss out on, what about the things that they may gain? More time with Mum and Dad, more time at home, more time to pursue other interests and ideas, more time to work at their own pace? Pay attention to those special moments, and if you can, make a note of them, or take a photo, so you can refer back to them at those times when things feel overwhelming.
Try not to think too far ahead in the future, and remind yourself that this will pass.
Asking for help if you need it
These truly are unprecedented times, and it is important to remember that despite the calls for social distancing, we are actually all in this together.
If you are interested in finding out more about ways in which you can promote your mental health and how families can support one another in the current situation, there is a wealth of useful information on the internet. You may find the following web links useful:
Do not be afraid to ask for help if you need it; from friends or family, or if necessary, from outside agencies. For emotional or mental health support for any family member, you can speak to your GP.
And remember, we will all get through this together.
Dr Abi Parnell
Portsmouth High School