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Coronavirus: how to help children cope in isolation

Your concentration may not be what it usually is at the moment, and losing concentration is just one of the many signs of stress I have noticed in myself over the last few weeks. We are dealing with many little adjustments, losses and stresses every day. 

For any other parents struggling to remember what they already know and to read for more than five minutes at a time, here are some basic psychological pointers and coping strategies with developmentally tailored advice that may help as a quick reference guide.

Signs of stress

First off, this is an entirely new situation for most of us, although the signs of stress and ways to manage them will be familiar to parents.

Stress affects everyone slightly differently, we are all unique after all, although there are some common signs to look out for in ourselves and our children. For example, experiencing mood swings, changes in behaviour (e.g. needing more company or pushing people away), changes in sleep patterns, craving certain foods, feeling a lack of motivation, being anxious, agitated or tense, hypersensitivity to information, preoccupying thoughts or stomach and head aches.

Recognising the signs of stress can help children identify their feelings for what they are so they can seek help.

When things are tough, remember that love soothes – physiologically and psychologically. Love, hugs, kind words and feeling connected relieves stress and can also enhance one’s immune system – love can reduce the power of stress.

It really is good to talk

Adults and children alike often remember more about how they felt within a conversation than the details and content – especially when emotions are running high. Speaking calmly at a time when you can focus on the conversation, attune to the other person’s feelings and empathise with their emotions will probably have a bigger impact than what a parent says (within reason, of course). Also, parents can check in with themselves as to how they are doing before entering a potentially difficult conversation. If feeling stressed and overwhelmed, it is absolutely ok to offer reassurance and a distraction, and say they need a few minutes before engaging in a conversation.

Depending upon a child’s age, they may have more or less exposure than others in terms of news and media platforms:

  • For younger children, simply letting them know they can ask questions and that answers can be explored together can be calming.
  • For children with lots of questions who take an interest in the news, parents may need to filter what they expose themselves to and highlight positive stories and the everyday heroes keeping things running and working to keep us safe and well.
  • Older children are likely to be receiving all sorts of information through various media and social media platforms, which could be overwhelming. Talking through their concerns and teaching them how to be evaluative of information that comes their way to assess reliability can help them consider how they will respond and engage with such platforms at this time.
Focus on ‘can do’ rather than what you can’t

Providing children with a sense of empowerment and control over this situation could help them focus on positive actions, rather than anxious feelings and negative consequences. For example: connecting with relatives online and supporting the wellbeing of isolated family members, keeping a routine, naming what you are thankful for as a family, taking daily exercise, caring for pets, having fun or finding escapism, whether than be in a den or nook, or with candles, a good film and some music. 

The focus can be on the positives where that is helpful. That said, when children need to reflect on what is different, strange, worrying or what has been lost, giving them space to feel sadness can help them recognise, experience and manage negative feelings. Learning how to cope with difficult emotions is empowering and an important part of development.

Learning of a different kind

Every family will find their own path given their circumstances and resources over the next few months. In reality, some people will have more choices than others in terms of what that path will look like. However, there are areas where we can all offer learning of a different kind: show children how to cope with distress (modelling tolerance), describing what stress can feel like and how it can be managed (psychoeducation) and involving them in jobs around the house (life skills). 

This unusual time will be learned about in schools in the future, much in the same way previous historic events are now. Children can be given good stories to tell to their grandchildren, like our grandparents gave to us.

It is important to remember that none of what we are currently experiencing is normal and it is totally okay to feel all sorts of feelings we don’t usually have rushing through our minds and bodies. This is a period in time, which will almost certainly last for months, not weeks. But, this is not a ‘new normal’, it shall pass, and when it does, we shall look back on the extraordinary time it once was.

Dr Sarah Parry is a clinical psychologist at the Manchester Metropolitan Museum.