As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Liz Barton editor of Veterinary Woman shares her thoughts and tips on parenting through a pandemic
The paradigm shift in living since lockdown is difficult to cope with for an emotionally developed brain, let alone one that is already in overdrive with the business of growing up. I have young kids – 6 and 8 years old – who are doing the typical chimp-mind of swinging wildly between highs and lows with unexpected irregularity. My more seasoned brain is able to temper much of this with experience and perspective, but I confess to finding the chimp on my back at similarly unpredictable junctures. How can we help them navigate this when we don’t have a map, and indeed stay in safe waters ourselves?
Common coronavirus concerns for parents
As co-administrator on the Vet Mums Facebook group I’m privy to a lot of challenges we’re facing as parents. There is concern over our safety as we head in to work, the pressure it can put on ourselves and our partners with homeschooling, and learning a new normal of routine (or absence thereof). And then we have to be there to help our kids understand what is going on and process their fears, anxieties and frustrations.
Here are some top tips and things to remember:
Kids process differently
Remember, our children don’t necessarily have the range of vocabulary to understand their emotions, let alone process them. They will often resort to anger, withdrawal, being difficult, or even experience physical symptoms such as stomach ache.
- Stay calm! They pick up on our emotional cues, and if we respond angrily to their anger, Vesuvius will erupt.
- Give them tools; describe different emotions and ask which one they’re feeling. Emotion picture sheets are available on the internet – print them out and your child can point to ones which resonate with how they feel. You can ask them to draw their feelings.
- Give them understanding. Validate their emotions and explain you feel those things too, but behaving badly/getting angry won’t help.
- Give them outlets. Options are good – they may want to write or draw a picture about how they feel. Sometimes running around the block or hitting a cushion can help. Ask them if they want to have a call with a friend or grandparent they can open up to.
Kids think we’re invincible
Often children will think everything will be fine because you’re there to deal with it all. If they see us having a wobble and being scared by the risk and uncertainty, they may lose their sense of security.
- Be honest – there is risk, but it is lower for kids their age and risk can be managed taking the correct precautions. Try to avoid expressions of fear or negative political comment in front of young children as it may cause them to worry more. For older children, it may be more appropriate to watch the news once a day with them if they would like to, and discuss the issues raised. Avoid making it an ever-present concern and an often-discussed topic throughout the day.
- Be clear and honest – this is what is happening and this is what we do / don’t know.
- Be practical – this is what we can do; hand-washing, social distancing, eating healthily and staying fit.
Routine gives security
With the groundhog-day feel of lockdown kids have fewer reference points to the shifting of time. Routines give security, reassurance, and structure to life. It doesn’t have to be strict, but giving your children a predictable structure to their day helps them to know what to expect and feel secure.
- Have a pattern; exact timings may work for your children, but for mine we acknowledge the time, but stick to blocks irrespective of the exact hour. Breakfast – schoolwork – playtime – lunch – schoolwork – exercise – playtime – dinner and bed.
- Online clubs – many kids clubs are moving their lessons and classes online. Try to join in when your children would normally attend, either live video classes or watch a pre-recorded session at the time your child would normally be doing that class.
- Keep a diary or calendar – if your kids don’t want to write a diary, then you can write one and discuss what you’re putting in. Ask if they’d like you to write something they want to remember about the day and offer them to write it themselves if they would like.
- Create special days to look forward to – whether it’s pizza and a movie every Friday, dress-up Thursday, screen-free Sunday or baking Tuesday, try and have a set thing you do on certain days of the week to add points of excitement.
My kids said to me yesterday ‘We hardly see you mummy, are you joining us for dinner?’ The reality is my husband is still going out to work, and I’m the one home with them 24/7. When they see me it’s to cook, eat, tidy, exercise and do schoolwork. The rest of the time I have to work myself. My husband is left to do the fun stuff! So even though they see more of me, they enjoy less time with me. It’s vital to help them understand why and give them extra love and care when possible.
- Give them time – I’m learning this one, and screen-free Sunday was put in place for ME to stop work for one day a week. I confess, I normally want to just zone out, but we all get far more out of playing games and going for walks together.
- Divide your day – give them clear expectations of when you are free to play and what is happening in the next time block. Such as, I know you want to play that with mummy now, but I have to work until lunchtime – you can have screen time then we eat lunch together and play then.’
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep! If they want to do something really involved and you simply don’t have the time, don’t say ‘yes, we’ll do that later’. Manage expectation and say, we can’t do that today, but we can do this Tomorrow we have time to do that.
- Top and tail the day – we have a ‘family bundle’ in the mornings. All jumping, tickling and laughing together to start the day. The end of the day is all of us reading and snuggling together. Be the first and last thing that makes them smile.
Look after you!
It’s been said many times, but you have to prioritise self-care to stay well enough to look after your loved ones. There are a great number of wellbeing resources to tap into, but carve out time to relax, talk and exercise. Stay hydrated, eat well and practice good sleep hygiene.
- Good enough is good enough – in fact it’s amazing at the moment. Don’t expect too much of yourself, your kids, or other friends and family.
- Be honest with yourself and others if you’re finding things tough. We ALL are at times, but can only express empathy when we talk to each other.
- Give yourself permission; stay in your pyjamas all day, snack out, binge-watch TV – but try to plan it, work towards it, involve the family, box it off as a segment of time you all enjoy together. Then get back to business refreshed.
- Don’t compare. Whatever you do, don’t compare! Switch off social media if you have to. If you can start and end the day smiling and hugging with your kids, you’re doing amazing!
- The NHS has some good guidance on parenting through Covid-19.
- Veterinary Woman has a summary of coronavirus resources, including a home-schooling guide.
- Vet Mums is a supportive closed Facebook community for all veterinary professionals and students to share and discuss issues around parenting in the profession. Dads are welcome too!
You can read more of the series of Mental Health Awareness blogs on the BVA website.