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Keeping children and young people mentally healthy during isolation

As the first week of home schooling comes to an end, parents up and down the country can congratulate themselves for getting to Friday afternoon. Children will be delighted to have the opportunity for family time over the weekend. But, how can we support our children and young people to maintain and protect their mental health while ensuring we're looking after our own?

We are not meant for isolation

This is clear from the struggles families and individuals are facing right now. We are being forced out of our physical communities and children are being thrown from their normal routine, which can be confusing and frustrating. Virtual communities and social media are springing up everywhere, which is a fantastic place to start in order to curb feelings of loneliness. Why not get a group of their friends to tune in to online PE with personal trainer Joe Wicks at 9am? Encourage them to continue talking with each other on apps, ensuring you are monitoring them. 

Digital detox

It's important not to rely too much on technology. Encourage a routine that has a balance between digital and non-digital activities, but don’t be too rigid about timings. Our children and young people are conditioned by bells at school. Allow them to express themselves in their own time (slowly, a routine may start to appear by itself). Draw, paint, make cards, sit down and work together, play board games, allow the children to make lunch one day. Keep boredom away by being creative with what you offer. 

Talk to each other

Sit down and really talk. If you've got a garden, even better. If not, use your exercise time to go for a walk and share how you are all feeling. Worried? Anxious? Be honest about it. If we, as parents, are open about our own emotions, we might encourage our children and young people to open up and share how they feel too. Emotions can run very high and a change of scenery can do everyone the world of good.

Learn something new

Try something together as a family, whether that's learning sign language, trying a dance class, singing along to Keep Britain Singing with Rock Choir or cooking a new dish. Take the time to share the experience together. Checking in with their school work is great, but to actually use this time for a joint experience is better. They will remember this more than anything else in the future and will still be learning, even if it's not on their usual curriculum.

Find peace and gratitude

Allow your children to experience peace and find something to be grateful for every day. Set up a quiet space, either in their room, the living room or even the garden. Allow the children to create the space themselves, making it colourful or calming and suited to their individual needs. Spend time sitting with them each day there and talk about what they are grateful for. Give them the opportunity to appreciate nature and to take a pause. If they have a relationship with God, encourage them to turn to him in prayer too. Perhaps even write a gratitude diary together. 

Recognise when you need support

If your child is struggling a lot and you feel they might benefit from additional support beyond your individual support network, contact your GP or phone a support line. You could even encourage them to speak to a helpline themselves: The Mix, Kooth and Childline are there to support them with any issue they may be having. Continue to validate their feelings and encourage them to share their experiences. Remember, we are all in this together!

Parents – some words of advice for you too!

We know that transitioning from having a clear work and home schedule, a commute to and from the office to prepare and de-stress, to being at home all day with everyone is difficult. Make sure you get time for yourself in amongst providing education on top of your every day.

Find your own peaceful place or activity to get away and stick to it. Make this a central part of your routine and don't give yourself a hard time for it. You don’t need permission to take care of yourself. There is support for you too, Samaritans and Shout can offer support in addition to your GP. But use this opportunity to do what we were designed to do – be in community with one another, whatever the circumstances.

Don’t be too strict with schedules, but try to encourage a routine. If your child was studying for exams, some difficult feelings of grief that their hard work may not be recognised are to be expected. Give them space, but also be there for them, for intentional conversations and even just to sit in silence. Nobody has the vocabulary to fully explain our world right now, so take it easy on yourself if you are struggling to find the answers and just be honest with them.

Katharine O'Brien works for the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the Young Vincentians team and is a qualified secondary RE teacher.