Families are going to be spending a lot of time together at home, now that we are increasingly being asked to stay indoors. This will be a big change for both children and their parents or guardians. It will inevitably lead to periods of agitation, stress and even exhaustion, as we become accustomed to being in such close proximity without the usual routines that give time and space apart. Here’s some thoughts on maintaining positive and healthy connections with children and young people during this unique time in our lives.
Make time for Play
With schools closing at short notice, there has been a huge effort from teachers and other support staff to provide work and set up remote learning platforms. But we need to be realistic about how much can be truly taught in the home environment, in a time of such enormous upheaval for children and their caregivers. While you establish your own plans for the coming days and weeks and strive to manage your own stress, make time for the child to indulge in one of the most developmentally enriching experiences of all.
Play gives both you and the child the opportunity to strengthen and deepen your relationship. Make each other laugh by playing chase games, hide and seek, peek-a-boo, and Ready/Steady/Go games with bubbles or wind-up cars. Copy each other in the mirror or imitate dance routines from YouTube. Hide items around the house for a treasure hunt. Go out to the garden and notice the sights and sounds of nature. While there will be times when children are happy to play on their own, find moments to convey curiosity about what they’re doing. Notice how he is playing with an action figure – “Hey, I see Spider-Man is climbing really high. I wonder where he’s going to go?”. Follow the child’s lead by taking another figure and copying what they do. Focusing on play provides lots of opportunities to enter the child’s world and help them to realise that you are interested in what they are saying and doing.
Spending so much time at home will help us to zero in on your children are good at and help them to realise that we recognise their skills. While it may be exhausting when your child has come over to take your order for their imaginary restaurant for the tenth time, praise them for how well they remembered the order and how polite they were. Show lots of enthusiasm about a drawing – talk about how well they’ve formed the lines and ask about their choice of colour. The use of arts and craft or play-doh can be easy ways of celebrating creativity and exploring why they made certain decisions. Be curious about the decisions they made and ask them to show you how to make something similar.
Giving the child different roles to carry out at home, such as setting the dinner table or tidying away certain items, can provide natural avenues for giving them warm and positive feedback and gratitude for how well they did their job. Opportunities to work together can also strengthen connection. If you’re a regular baker, consider scheduling time for the two of you to make some tasty treats. When thinking of a quick trip to the supermarket for essential food, perhaps the child could help you compile a list of what you need. Celebrating their strengths and contributions is essential for showing them how valued and helpful they are.
Accept and Empathise with Feelings
The sudden closure of schools and curtailing of social contact will impact on children in different ways. Some may be very anxious about the abrupt change in routine and feel insecure about whether further changes will occur. Others may be angry at not being able to see their friends in or out of school. There is likely to be a great deal of sadness and disappointment over trips being cancelled and contact with relatives being restricted to phone calls and video chats. Their ability to cope with these feelings will affect how well they can engage in play or learning activities.
I’ve previously devoted an entire blog post to the concept of empathy and it remains an essential component of how we talk to children and young people during the coronavirus crisis. Instead of trying to blow past or distract from their feelings, accepting and empathising shows that we are connected to their inner experience. We can say things like:
“You are so frustrated that you can’t go to your friend’s house. I know how much you were looking forward to it and it’s so unfair that we have to cancel our plans”.
“You seem pretty quiet today. I wonder if you’re feeling a little scared about school being closed? It must have been a big shock and it’s ok to feel worried about what happened”.
“I can see how annoyed you are right now. Doing this work at home isn’t the same as being in school with your teacher and your friends. This is really tough and it’s ok to feel the way you’re feeling”.
Reframe to Reassure
During times of stress, we tend to over-estimate the chances of negative outcomes in the future and under-estimate our ability to cope with difficult times. For adults around the world, our thoughts may fixate on the health of our family and friends, the security of our jobs and income and the frustrating restrictions on our physical movement and social contact. For children, their “stress voice” could be focusing on worrying concepts such as whether they will see their teachers and friends again, whether their school will open again and what might happen if they or a family member contracts the virus.
It’s important that we slow down or even stop the escalation in these negative thoughts by helping to reframe their perspective. We can use statements which provide a more neutral or positive outlook on different situations. Our connection with the child will be enhanced when we convey a sense of safety and help to exercise their logical “upstairs brain”. The following are some examples of reframing:
“Schools are closing so that we can keep children safe. You’re safe at home with me and you can come and talk to me any time of the day”.
“By keeping our distance from Granny and Granda, they will stay healthy. This is the best way we can help them right now”.
“We were planning to start our new keep-fit routine over the Easter holidays. The good thing about being home is that we can start it together today and maybe we can even keep it up with all this free time!”.
“I know you wish that you could go and see your friends, but isn’t it great that you can still talk to them over FaceTime or through your video game? Maybe we should arrange a regular time to chat and play online so you can keep in touch more often”.
As our movements and working patterns have become increasingly restricted, I’ve noticed lots of people on social media talking about how they will use the time to do things they’ve been putting off. This might include learning a new language, setting up a Yoga routine or starting a new book. For children, it’s important that the next few months are not just a mix of home learning and free play. We have an opportunity to make lasting memories and help them to look back on this unprecedented time in a positive way.
Photographs are an easy way of capturing the day-to-day moments, giving you a family album to look back on. Home movies or video diaries can also be great ways of narrating these uncertain times. Having these powerful reminders of fun and silly interactions provides concrete evidence of your connection with the child. When you’re having a bad day, they can also help you keep things in perspective and remember the good times in amongst the bad. Other examples of memorable activities might include making hand prints, drawing family portraits, planting a new flower, writing a silly story or song and making decorations for the house and garden.
I’ll finish with a quote from beloved American TV personality Fred Rogers, which I think nicely encapsulates the importance of connection; that we are seeing the child or young person for who they are and wanting to be in a relationship with them. Even though we and they may take this for granted, we need to work on connection more than ever during times of stress and crisis.
“You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are”.