Whether we are a parent, a teacher or a child-care provider, many of us are asking ourselves how we can best support the children in our care during this stressful time of uncertainty around the COVID-19 virus.
There are universal strategies that we can use to help children to feel safe, even as they hear news reports about schools closing, people getting very ill, and things like shortages at the grocery store. We can try to limit their exposure to these stories, but we can’t shield them from everything. And, we also need to recognize that changes in their daily routines – especially ones that are as drastic as school shutdowns, and a temporary hiatus on things like extra-curricular activities, playdates and birthday parties – are inherently stressful for children.
As a result of all of these changes, kids are scared and stressed. Many parents are wondering what they can do about it, even while they are also trying to figure out how to keep their kids occupied given the need for social distancing at this time.
We need to help kids to feel safe right now, and we need to help them to release some of the anxiety and alarm they may be experiencing in healthy ways. This is the time to:
- reassure them that they can rest in the safety of our leadership;
- help them to create a new rhythm to their days, ensuring to build in time for connection; and
- provide a safe space for emotional release.
This is the time to up our leadership
Imagine being on a turbulent flight. You hear the pilot’s voice, nervously asking, “Umm, can everyone please fasten their seatbelts?” Imagine the reactions of the passengers around you:
Some would become very anxious: “Are we going to be ok? What’s going on?”
Others might try to take care of the situation, perceiving a need to take charge and to fill a gap in leadership: “Didn’t you hear the pilot? Put on your seatbelt!”
And still, others might get very angry and even distrust the pilot: “What is wrong with that pilot? Don’t they know how to do their job?”
Now, imagine the pilot says, “We are experiencing some turbulence. Passengers, please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. Thank you.” Being calm and self-assured is more likely to reassure passengers that everything is okay—the pilot has got this! They just need to follow the pilot’s instructions, and everything will be alright. They are safe.
At times like this, we really need to up our leadership, by thinking of ourselves as the calm, self-assured pilot. When things are stressful or uncertain for children, conveying that we’ve got this helps them to feel safe, trust us and follow our lead. In fact, these are the times when our leadership matters most. If we can stay centered during this time (even if we are only acting this way on the outside!), it will support children to feel grounded. It is incredibly reassuring and soothing to rely on someone else’s guidance when the world is uncertain and even scary. Let them rest in our guidance and care.
This means that we need to:
- reassure children that we are handling the situation, by listening to the advice of doctors and experts;
- let them know that the changes they are experiencing in their lives right now are intended to keep everyone in our community safe;
- and tell them that they and the people they love – including us – are all making changes right now so that we all stay as healthy as possible.
Create a new rhythm to their days
Children crave rhythm. Consistent routines, rituals, and structures help children feel safe. They can lean on these and rely on them.
Yet many children are experiencing the exact opposite right now. Many are home from school and unsure as to when exactly they are returning. Or perhaps they are still in class but are overhearing talk about schools closing. This uncertainty might be alarming to them, and this might translate into troublesome behaviours. We might see a lot more clinginess, whining, bossiness, and bad dreams if they are scared and anxious. Or, they might be frustrated by the change in their routines and act out in ways that are aggressive and disruptive.
So what can we do?
If we create a new rhythm to their days during these uncertain times, it can help them immensely. Each family is unique. You will have to find a structure and routine that works for your needs, but here are some broad guidelines:
- It is important to set and stick to consistent meal times as much as possible.
- Establishing consistent bedtime routines is also very helpful.
- Parents should also provide some structure for daily activities. For example, you might decide that every afternoon after lunch will be quiet reading time for the entire family, and that everyone will play a boardgame together after dinner.
In establishing a new daily structure, make sure to build in daily rituals of connection. Humans crave connection. Children feel safe not just when they feel they can rely on our leadership, but also when they feel connected to us. As parents, we can increase our children’s sense of safety by providing daily opportunities for connection, especially at a time like this. So, as we create a new rhythm for our children’s days, we must make sure that we incorporate daily rituals of connection. This could be as simple as eating dinner together, storytime for everyone at bedtime, or having a family singalong every night.
In addition, even if we can only predict what the next week is going to be like, we should gently let children know about changes to their routines ahead of time wherever possible, so they have some idea of what to expect. We won’t always be able to do this perfectly at a time like this, but wherever possible, we should give them a head’s up in advance about any shifts that may occur.
Provide a safe space for emotional release
Helping children to find a new rhythm to their days will help them feel safe, and it is critical that we establish household routines that they can rely on. But at the same time, we should take care not to jam-pack their days with tons of activities.
I am hearing from many parents right now who are worried about what they are going to do with their children, now that schools and community centers are closing. It might help you to know that you do not have to turn into an entertainment director. In fact, one of the things that will help children immensely is having some time for free play – that is, time that is free of structured activities, TV, the Internet, and electronics – so their imaginations can run free while they engage in any other activity that is appealing to them.
Free play is always important for children, but especially at times like this. Play is how children digest their lives. It is how they make sense of their world, release emotions like frustration and anxiety, and understand experiences without feeling threatened or overwhelmed.
This is why we shouldn’t jam-pack our kids’ schedules at this time with tons of activities every day. Don’t worry about giving them something specific to do every single minute of every day. In fact, if your kids get a bit bored while they’re at home, this is a good thing! It is when kids get bored that they start looking for things to do, and they start to put their own imaginations to work.
As we look to create a new rhythm for our children, we should also be aware that our kids might need us to help them find ways to release and express emotion while they are at home, riding out the pandemic with the rest of us. This does not necessarily mean talking about their feelings. Some kids may be ready for this; others, not so much. However, in knowing that many children will be more alarmed right now than usual, we can make it easy for them to engage in simple activities that can provide them release without them feeling self-conscious about it. (These activities can feel like a big, giant out breath!)
Many children will not know they need this, nor will they seek it. Therefore, the best thing we can do right now is to be casual about these activities. In fact, it might make them feel self-conscious if they think we are inviting them to take part in activities that are supposed to be ‘good for them.’
Here are some simple activities that can support release:
Wrap the dining room table with paper and scatter pencil crayons all over it. That’s it. No asking your kids to draw all over it during “playtime.” No need to turn it into a big project. Just leave it there. Chances are, most kids will doodle. If you think they won’t get it, go over and do a little doodling yourself from time to time. Don’t make a big thing out of it. Just do it yourself. It’s likely they’ll join in. And through their doodling, they will express and release whatever they need to get out.
Put colouring books and crayons out where kids can see them, pick them up and take them to any part of the house they like. Colouring is different than drawing. Many kids find it more relaxing to simply put colour on paper, without having to come up with a “picture” first. Additionally, kids can fall into a “flow state” quite easily due to the gentle rhythm of moving their hands back and forth on a page, releasing tension as a result.
Sing together! Singing is a great way to release tension, and help us feel connected to each other. Whether you take the lead with your younger kids, or you just start to sing pop songs while you’re washing dishes with your teens, there are dozens of ways you can harness the power of music as a great tension reliever at this time.
These are just a few ideas. There are so many more ways to help your children express and release their emotions, like:
- listening to audiobooks together.
- listening to music while cooking, cleaning, colouring, etc.
- holding a dance party in your living room!
- molding, pounding and creating with play-dough (there are many simple recipes online).
Most importantly, let us remember that even when the world doesn’t feel safe, WE can be our children’s safe place.