Here is that email from child psychologist Jennifer Wills Lamacq to me, in full.
Everyone is quite rightly concerned about the impact on children’s mental health and parents are understandably wondering how much of the collective concern will apply to their own kids. Fears for our children’s mental health is fuelling a lot of our own stress. It’s one more significant thing that feels beyond our control.
It is difficult to get the balance right: I don’t want to minimise the very real risk of harm that our youngest generation is facing but nor do I want to pathologise what for some children might be fairly temporary or adaptive responses to these really difficult times. When we talk about children’s resilience, we take into account the combinations of other things in their lives; some children will be mostly coping whilst others will be more vulnerable.
Whatever the situation, there are things which can be done.
Signs of problems
Be aware that all of the things on this list will be present in most kids to some degree and often just represents a natural response to a difficult time. If parents are seeing extreme changes that significantly interfere with their daily functioning and also don’t get better with the suggestions below, they should get in touch with GP and school to be connected to local psychological support services.
- Sleep: difficulty falling and staying asleep, or lethargy and excess sleepiness
- Behaviour: either particularly withdrawn or overly restless and hyperactive
- Emotional steadiness: are they able to cope with minor setbacks or do small mistakes/inconveniences result in big reactions?
- Preoccupation with safety, illness or death. Particularly intrusive thoughts or excess worry.
- Physical symptoms which may be related to worry and stress; stomach aches or headaches.
- Clinginess and/or behaving like a younger child.
Recognise that the changes in behaviour have arisen from the combination of big unsettling changes, difficult new emotions, and unmet needs arising from the loss of particular pre-lockdown activities. To that end:
- Consider what elements of the big changes could be under your control
- Help your child identify, understand, and express their emotions
- Figure out what needs are no longer being met by the lost activities and look for substitutes
The Big Changes
This is most likely loss of routine, changes in parents’ stress/time/attention, uncertainty about the future. Obviously lots of the lockdown-related changes are completely out of our control, (hence why it’s so hard), but you can find elements under your control which you can use to bring about a feeling of security in the kids.
These tend to be: routines/structure, sleep, parent wellbeing, parent-child connection.
This is really helpful on a number of levels (even though it can also feel a bit boring and inconvenient in the short term). Set a regular waking up time, relatively consistent meal times, and decent bed times with a good hour or so of calm structured time beforehand. Fresh air and daylight, particularly in the morning, is great for the body clock.
It tends to get better with a good 24 hour routine but also introduce a predictable sequence before bed (e.g. dinner, short bath, stories/chats, dim room). Keep heavy chats or journaling to earlier in the day and make bedtime chats more positive unless your child is really distressed. Most children fall asleep better if they don’t have their devices at bedtime. You can make a Happy Sleep Box where your child selects some tokens of happy memories, and then at each bedtime they choose one out of the box and you talk about it for a bit.
I’m not going to be unrealistic here. I know what it is like. However, if you can do even tiny things to make today go better for you, then do them. Untangling your own stress is going to pay off A LOT in terms of managing your kids so I tend to say that should never come last.
Also, be aware that children often project feelings onto you and use you to contain the emotions they can’t handle. This means they can make you feel awful and can also push at boundaries until they get the reaction they need in that moment. Don’t aim for perfection and don’t hate yourself for reacting.
One of the most difficult things for kids at the moment is that home has turned into school and parents into teachers. Remember that the most important thing in all of this is that your child continues to feel comfortable at home, and feels connected to you. Try to build in short but frequent times during the day where you just be together, watching TV or drawing or whatever it is your child likes and you can meaningfully join in. Don’t wait for them to ‘need’ it.
Rules and boundaries
Most parents I speak to are kind of veering between two extremes here which ends up being stressful and confusing for everyone. Adjust your expectations and have a think about how you are dealing with “bad behaviour”. Emotionally-driven bad behaviour is notgoing to go away through punishment.
- Keep consistent boundaries
- Acknowledge the limits of your patience but try not to let your patience dictate how consistent you are with your responses. Remember your patience is affected by your own stress levels.
- If there really needs to be a consequence, make it logical not arbitrary. Also, try not to ban important things or take them away. Children don’t have much at the moment so further limits will probably be counter-intuitive.
- Recognise that some of the really challenging behaviour is coming from emotional confusion so any outbursts are likely to be followed by internal distress and shame from the child. Focus on helping them resolve, repair, and move on.
A note on devices, which cause so much worry
First, remember that “screentime” is meaningless and arbitrary screentime cutoffs usually do more harm than good. Think about what purpose the “screen” is serving, the balance of other activities in the day, your child’s own needs, and make your decisions based on that. An isolated and otherwise lonely child playing Minecraft with friends is getting valuable social connection and a sense of belonging that far outweighs a ten minute argument about devices followed by a jigsaw puzzle.
Children of all ages can encounter difficulty understanding and expressing their feelings, particularly in these circumstances. This usually leads to challenging behaviour, starting arguments and the kind of outbursts where they erupt with bad language. It is a build up of frustration, confusion, and a need to have some control over the situation (/people). The following can help prevent it.
- In general, comment and name/explain what you think they are feeling (rather than questioning them and expecting them to be able to tell you). Don’t do this whilst they are in the middle of it.
- Talk to them during a joint activity so that you are sharing attention but not fixated on them. Walking, driving, baking, drawing.
- Try not to explain away or minimise distress. As parents, we want our children to feel better but sometimes they just need to be acknowledged and heard. No solutions required.
- Acknowledge or paraphrase what they have told you, don’t say ‘BUT’ to turn it round.
- “You’re lonely because you miss your friends BUT you saw them on Zoom this morning” is dismissive. “You’re lonely because you miss your friends and video calls don’t feel the same” is validating.
- Acknowledge or paraphrase what they have told you, don’t say ‘BUT’ to turn it round.
- Let them know it is normal to have conflicting or opposing feelings such as being happy to miss school but sad to be miss friends.
- No matter their age, children process their feelings through play, whether its mini figures, role play or Roblox. Children can be creative and clever in using their interests to work through their feelings.
- Books are great for all the above. These are my favourites. The first five are picture books, the latter are chapter books. I think the Sam Copeland “Charlie” books are GREAT; they’re funny and silly but have a good undercurrent of helping children to understand the link between emotions and behaviour.
- My Many Coloured Days by Dr Seuss
- No Matter What by Debi Gliori
- How are You Feeling Today by Mollie Potter
- Big Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside
- Sometimes I Feel… by Sarah Maycock
- Butterfly Brain by Laura Dockrill
- Sequin and Stitch by Laura Dockrill
- Charlie Changes Into A Chicken by Sam Copeland (and the rest of his Charlie series)
Acceptance and mindfulness techniques
Learning to be ‘ok’ with having difficult feelings is a useful skill. We sometimes behave as though a bad feeling must be solved before we can move past it. As adults we can be guilty of that too so sometimes we need to reflect on how we deal with negativity first.
- Encourage your children to express what they are feeling and identify how they can get on with their day even though they’re frustrated/sad/anxious. Not to dismiss or minimise but to help them be constructive.
- A box full of toys and one is broken. Would they focus only on the broken one or would it make sense to put it aside and play with the others?
- There’s a few resources that may appeal, such as the “Have You Filled a Bucket Today?” happiness type exercises.
- Five Finger breathing or the Five Senses activity (name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch…..)
- My Happy Self Journal or BigLife Journal or homemade equivalents.
- There are meditation apps for kids which older children might enjoy.
This varies wildly between families so most of the below is tailored to what you mentioned about Sam and Sam-type children. The general tip for parents though is to think about what your child’s days were like pre-pandemic, think about what activities were valuable to them, and why? E.g. exercise, satisfaction, connection, exhilaration, competition, peacefulness, determination, freedom, independence, teamwork, silliness, humour, love, relaxation….
Then think laterally about other ways those values can be met under the constraints of lockdown. It might be totally different to what they used to but actually fulfil the same need. For example, if what he liked about organised sports was the peacefulness of clearing his mind through pure focus on the game, then something else that gets him in that zone might not have to be sport. Depending on their age/stage of development, children can help figure this out with you.
Lockdown exercise ideas
- Pokemon Go
- If they have local friends, set up an ongoing activity of treasure hunts/scavenger hunts. They can hide objects around the neighbourhood and drop off maps/clues to their friends (or GoogleMap Pin Drops, WhatThreeWords reference points if dropping off notes isn’t an option)
- The point is they’re getting their fresh air and exercise and an opportunity for distanced connection with their mates, but there’s an overall purpose to it
Really active children who are suffering from enforced lockdown can benefit from sensory circuits or proprioceptive exercises at home. These take a bit of trial and error as what is calming for one child is overstimulating for another.
- stretching with resistance bands,
- hanging around from Pull-Up bars,
- rolling over and under yoga balls,
- planking on foam rollers
- heavy lifting and weight bearing
Alternatives to Zoom
Loads of kids hate zoom calls. There are genuine psychological reasons for this, not least the fact that children generally prefer to just be with each other rather than talk to each other.
- If group calls are necessary, keep the numbers low.
- Instead of a live video, recorded video or voice notes can be a lot more appealing.
- Sometimes having a purpose for contact is needed … depending on their interests….
- I know a few kids who enjoy sending voicenotes of “rude” jokes or “gross” videos to each other. Depends on your own family boundaries (and those of the other family) of course.
- Other kids like to set challenges to each other, place bets, and video the results. Cream cracker challenge, chocolate square challenge. The Beano website has loads of video challenge ideas.