My son Freddie, four, is terrified of catching Covid-19. He says he is worried about picking it up in the park. He has gone from being an extrovert to withdrawn and lonely. Will I ever get the old Freddie back?
Dr Paul Kelly, a consultant educational and child psychologist, says: We’re all going to be changed in some ways by this experience, both children and adults. But while there’s a negative impact on emotional wellbeing and mental health, we also know that negotiating their way through adverse circumstances can help children and young people to develop resilience. This is especially true if children recognise they can use a support network and rely on others in times of need.
Children easily pick up on the emotional state of their parents and carers. But they don’t have the long-term perspective adults have, and may struggle to see a distressing event in the news as a temporary situation. Explain this to them; everything changes. Be cautious about the amount of news a young child is exposed to. If they ask questions, use an age-appropriate resource. A good option is Coronavirus: A Book For Children by Elizabeth Jenner, Kate Wilson and Nia Roberts, illustrated by Axel Scheffler – it’s available to buy or to print free at home.
During the first lockdown, my kids’ school said there was no need to be perfect, just do your best and we’ll muddle through. This time round it feels very different: there’s a roll call, and loads of demands from school that just seem to make things worse. Any advice on how to cope?
Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and author of The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, says: You can only do your best. Clearly there’s a lot of pressure coming from school, but you don’t have to succumb to it. Lower your expectations: your first duty to your child is that you don’t go mad. So remind your child once that it’s time to log on for a lesson, but if they don’t enjoy the lesson or don’t log on at all, try not to stress. There’s a window at the moment for children to follow their own lines of inquiry and curiosity: let them watch a beetle in the park, or draw a picture, or read about astronomy. What’s really precious is the relationship between you and your child – don’t do anything to jeopardise that. It’s more important to be relaxed than to get everything right.
I’m a single parent with children of three, six and nine, and I find it impossible to be the parent I want to be. I’m under pressure, I’m stressed, I shout at them, and I worry about how this will affect my long-term relationship with them.
Dr Debora Vasconcelos e Sa, clinical psychologist and senior lecturer in psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, says: Beating yourself up, saying things such as, “I’m not a good parent”, is a very strong predictor of poor psychological wellbeing – and it’s going to impact on your kids as much as on you. So the key message is that you have to look after yourself and address your own needs. Yes, there’s a pandemic on, but lockdown doesn’t mean carers can manage without breaks and respite, any more than they could before. You need to recharge: it’s like that safety message on a plane about putting on your own oxygen mask before you help your children with theirs.
If your children’s other parent sometimes has the children, or if you’re in a support bubble with someone who can help, go for a walk, or have a bath – something, so you have time to yourself.
It’s also worth linking up with other parents who are in a similar place to you. Try Carers Trust and Carers UK; even if you can do that only virtually at the moment, it will help you feel connected to others, especially those who can really empathise because they are going through the same thing.
But also remember: if the situation becomes too hard, call on professional help and support. Your GP can help, or you can self-refer to NHS mental health services.
We’ve always tried to reduce screen time for our children, who are 13 and 10, but now they are on their screens all the time. How will that affect them in the long term? And how can we cut down on screen time in lockdown?
Dr Sarah Helps, consultant clinical psychologist and consultant family therapist at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, says: Right now, it’s not about cutting down screen time – it’s about how screen time is being spent. So talk about what they are doing. Use their online activities as a jumping-off point: if they’re watching a television programme or playing a game in which another country is mentioned, look it up on the map, talk about what’s going on there.
The reality is that we’re moving to a state of digital-by-default in many areas of life. Once we are through these lockdowns, we will need to work out what to carry on doing on screen, and what to pick up again in person. Social contact, education and healthcare will all be delivered in hybrid ways in future, and our relationship to screens and the online world needs to address this.
It’s also worth remembering that, for teens with social anxiety, those who find the pace of in-person social communication challenging, as well as those who are shy or have specialist interests, finding and engaging with others online can be hugely beneficial. Think, too, about your own actions, which are crucial: model non-screen-related activities such as cooking, listening to the radio, reading a book. Set dedicated no-screen time – for example, during one meal a day. Reward your kids for finding non-screen activities (and try it yourself, so you remember just how hard it is to leave your device alone).
What can I use as a sanction for my eight-year-old daughter? I used to tell her she wouldn’t be allowed to see her friends, or go to the park, or watch TV. But now she can’t see her friends anyway, the park is the only ounce of sanity in my life and I need those moments when she’s watching television.
Dr Dan O’Hare, an educational psychologist and co-chair of the Division of Educational and Child Psychology at the British Psychological Society, says: These are exceptionally hard times and many children are behaving in ways they wouldn’t usually. I think the chance to get out to the park and to have screen time should be givens: children need what these things provide. I suggest you reframe all this around rewards that encourage the behaviour you want to promote, and consequences, which should always be connected to what has happened. Be careful, for example, about sending a child to his room on his own if he has hit his sister: he will be dealing with a lot of emotional stuff, and sending him to do that alone might not help him. If you need to do that, then say something like: “First I have to make sure Charlotte is OK, and then I’ll come to talk to you in a few minutes’ time.”
Remember that parents lose it sometimes – and that’s fine. Because it is powerful for you to say to your child: “I did the same as you, I lost my temper.” Not only are you teaching a child about what emotions mean and do, but you are giving him or her a structure to understand how they work. I’m a big believer in striking while the iron is cold: so if something tricky happened yesterday, and today is calmer and everything seems better, this is the time to discuss it. Talk about what happened, ask your child for their version of it and what they think could make a difference, to avoid it occurring again. If you think you behaved badly, apologise to your child: that’s another very powerful thing to do.
My 17-year-old son should be working hard for his A-levels, but he has lost all motivation. He’s dismayed by the lack of clarity over what’s happening with exams, and knows from friends in their first year at university that student life is no longer fun. How can I help him rediscover his zest for life?
Laverne Antrobus, consultant child psychologist at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, says: Your empathy will go a long way, but it’s also worthwhile talking to teaching staff at school, to come up with a practical programme to help your son. He needs a plan: it’s an important reference point, even if it has to go on the back burner for now. What makes someone lose heart is losing sight of a goal, or not knowing the steps to take to reach that goal. So focus on what the goal is. Maybe it’s different now, but that could be an opportunity rather than a disaster. Your son might decide to put off university and do something different next year instead, for example.
It’s also really important to acknowledge his loss and disappointment. This time in your son’s life was so looked forward to, and now everything has changed. So slow things down, be sympathetic – and look for the nuggets of hope we all need at the moment to see us through.