Quick ideas to protect children’s wellbeing during lockdown

Written by: Ross McWilliam | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The coronavirus outbreak and lockdown could have a significant impact on wellbeing, mindset and mental health. Ross McWilliam advises families on approaches and activities to support their children

A generation of children face an unprecedented onslaught to their mental health and wellbeing, one that strikes at the very heart of their existence – their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

And of course, this is a challenge that will undoubtedly affect their academic, cognitive, behavioural, and physical progress.

Without doubt, there are going to be children of all ages, backgrounds and abilities who will feel physically and emotionally isolated, who may lose a sense of identity and belonging, and who may wilt without school structure and without the opportunity to see their friends.

Crucially, without a definite timeframe of when all this will end and with an uncertainty of what society will look like once coronavirus has been beaten, the challenge to mental health for all of us is clear.

This is a new situation for everyone, and often our first response is not always the right response. For example, many parents up and down the country are donning their teacher caps and gowns, and implementing structured learning in their own homes. I have seen examples where some have added registers and the wearing of uniforms (and even school bells) to this structured routine in an attempt to mimic school life. Others have added webinar playtimes so children can talk and "play" with fellow school pupils in other homes!

There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to replicate school life in the home. However, we must be careful that these routines do not become the sole focus of our home learning. Education is important, but so is nurture and self-development. We must have the variety, flexibility and creativity in these routines to cover all bases.

The number one priority for children is safety and security, followed by trust and relationships. We must endeavour to address the security and safety needs of children immediately, and regularly, before any other learning objective is even considered.

One idea is to allow the child to have time to themselves in a space in the home, like an escape room. This may allow them to manage their emotions without being probed or questioned – a great opportunity to develop reflection. If space is tight, dedicate a corner of a room as the safe space, where they can think, or read, or play on their console or iPad.

Furthermore, the child’s brain is rapidly growing and developing and is often very receptive and adaptable to change. So we must take every opportunity to feed positive change and development. We must carve out quality time for this work.

To this end, priorities include self-esteem, emotional confidence, resilience, empathy, talking and listening skills, metacognition and reflection, and as already mentioned simply some regular time to think (see later for some resources). And of course allowing ample opportunities for down time or family time with no expectations is vital.

If we can achieve a feeling of security and safety followed by emotional learning then a natural follower is academic learning.

Reception and key stage 1

This should be all about providing safety and security. There is no need to talk specifically about the pandemic. Rather, talk about how things change in life and how we must adapt to change.

It could be useful talking in the third person using one of their favourite cartoon characters and describing scenarios where the character comes to save the day. Identify what skills and attitudes the character has and maybe allow your child to adopt some of these traits – everyone has a superhero, and everyone can be a superhero.

In this process of speaking, it is crucially important that we listen without the intention of interrupting. Rather we should listen to understand, maybe adding subtle non-verbal gestures to encourage the child monologue. This phase can be seen as the "emptying" phase where the child gets things off the chest. We must not jump in too soon as we attempt to solve the situation instantly. Use plenty of re-assuring physical contact as this will greatly assist these conversations, maybe holding the child as you talk and listen.

Key stage 2

A similar approach to Reception and key stage 1. The ability to listen non-judgementally is key and allow the child to get things off their chest. Where appropriate, such as during natural breaks, or when emotion is overcoming the child, offer contact via hugs and kisses and then start to unravel their words. Children want to be assured everything will be okay and we do this initially by physical contact and then by a calm tone and pitch of voice. Tell the child you have heard what they have said, and then address the issues.

Try not to "catastrophise events" and maybe take things one day at a time. Talk about what we can and can’t control in life, and how as a family we always stick together and support each other. Look for opportunities for children to support each other, either siblings or friends, or even you and their grandparents.

Sometimes, verbal communication can be forgotten or mis-interpreted, so the use of a drawing pad or diary might be a great way to capture what has been spoken about. I often use the inflated balloon exercise to capture negativity and positivity (see resources).

Like with younger children, it might also be appropriate to talk in the third person, A great example is Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, where Piglet is often upset and nervous and all Pooh does sometimes is just sit with him, showing support. You can expand on the support Pooh gives as he often does things together with Piglet.

Key stage 3

A simple yet effective way to talk to children of this age is to use the triangle of "Think, Feel, Do". Let them talk about their thoughts, how these thoughts make them feel, and how these feelings or emotions impact their behaviours. Then try and convert negative thoughts, feelings and actions into more positive ones, looking for opportunities to grow.This is a great opportunity to expand on the concept of Red React or Green Respond (see resources).

Similarly, as with younger children, some might want to express their thoughts and fears on paper. It might be appropriate for these notes to be kept confidential as just the process of writing down can be very therapeutic. Ask if the child would like to share their writings/drawings.

Key stage 4

Sadly, there may be large parts of this age group that are in denial. They may believe coronavirus is not serious or that they cannot catch the virus. This might lead to risk-taking behaviours. Clear information must be given to counteract this viewpoint.

Of course, there will be other children who will be extremely worried and we can apply the approaches above for key stage 3 in terms of the "Think, Feel, Do" triangle. This provides a good practical base upon which to talk about their fears. It should also be pointed out that, while you acknowledge their fears, this could also be a time for opportunities – to learn more, to develop an additional hobby or interest, maybe start a family project.

Additional calming and awareness strategies may be useful to explore for those children who display a frightened disposition. Breathing, mindfulness and visualisation are three common strategies that can easily be used to reduce feelings of anxiety and worry (see resources).

Another activity which helps children understand what they can and cannot control is the Stress Bin Activity. Stress bins vary in size for each person and so the bigger the bin, the more stress a person can take (based on a number of factors such as background, frame of reference and experiences). Children write down all their stresses and put them into a bin. They are then asked which they can or cannot control and which current coping methods they employ and whether these help or hinder them (see resources).

In summary

As families, our priorities should be:

  • Creating safe emotional environments to enable learning routines to be effective.
  • Flexing routines to counteract over familiarity.
  • Listening to concerns non-judgementally.
  • Recognising when soft interventions are needed.
  • Applying appropriate strategies to calm and re-assure children.
  • Modeling the behaviour you expect to see.

Ross McWilliam is a national trainer for Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) and a published author and speaker on children’s mindset. He specialises in stress management, improving mindset, wellbeing and performance and has worked with more than 1,500 schools. Visit www.mindsetpro.co.uk & www.cuppajourney.com or follow him @RossMcWilliamUK

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