Being a working parent is a constant juggling act, but as of 20 March it just got a whole lot harder. If you’re one of the many parents either struggling to keep your business going or struggling to play your part in keeping your employer’s business going (from home) while home schooling and looking after your children, you’re understandably likely to be feeling pretty overwhelmed.
In unchartered times where your children may be struggling with a lack of routine and not seeing their friends, you may be starting to worry about the longer-term effect of this on their mental health. While there are no concrete answers at the moment, it’s clear that the importance of having family time and doing things together like baking, playing board games and going on family walks (once a day) is going to be paramount, alongside the routine offered by school work.
So, what exactly can you do to help your children stay mentally healthy in the days, weeks and months to come?
Talking to your children about the pandemic
You’ve probably already talked to your children about the current situation and explained why they aren’t going to school or nursery. You’ve also likely addressed why they can’t currently see their friends, but you may feel that you should explore the subject further, or your children may have questions. It can be difficult knowing just how much or little to tell them about the current situation, not least because it keeps changing. Here’s what The Mental Health Foundation suggests:
- Acknowledge that it’s OK to be concerned
Go through all their concerns and questions with them, rather than well-meaningly dismissing their feelings by telling them everything is fine. Try sharing with them that you also find events like this worrying. Reassure them that, although bad things can happen, many people including world-leading experts are working very hard to reduce the impact of the pandemic, so they do not need to be scared all the time.
- Be aware of how much news they’re consuming
Force-feeding news to children or going to great lengths to shield them from it, can be unhelpful; balance is key. Avoid turning the TV off or closing web pages when they come into the room. This can spark their interest in knowing what’s really going on – and that is when their imagination can take over.
- Let them know the facts and offer safety
If children have access to clear and honest explanations of what is happening, and they know it’s okay to talk about the pandemic, no matter how scary. If you don’t have the answers, be honest and try reading or watching reputable news sources together, that you have already previewed, or share news in the moment by explaining what is happening verbally in an unbiased way. Check in with them regularly to ask if they are discussing the pandemic with friends – especially if they have access to messenger apps to stay in touch with school friends. Reassure them that they can ask you questions.
- Talk about vulnerability and responsibility
Talk to your children about what it means to be vulnerable in the context of the COVID-19 (i.e. belonging to a high risk group as defined by the NHS) and explain how many of the responses to it have been put in place to help protect those who are vulnerable. You can use this as an opportunity for teaching children to grow into responsible citizens. Abiding by the measures – such as not going out and gathering with other people – means understanding that there is something bigger than individuals, and that we should protect each other.
There’s also this short interactive PDF from Mindheart.co if you have younger children to explain the situation to.
Day-to-day life: steps you can take to help your children remain mentally healthy
Ultimately, you know your child best, if you think they’re starting to struggle with their mental health, or indeed if you are starting to struggle, ease off. This is not a test, it’s a new situation that we’re all in together and we all need to come out of the other side.
If you’re not sure of the signs that your child is struggling, Colette Etheridge, one of the child behaviour specialists at Parent Cloud, explains, “In very young children, anxiety might show itself in prolonged episodes of crying, aggressive behaviours, disturbed sleep patterns and/or not wanting to be separated from the primary carer.
Once children get to school age, in addition to some of the above, we might also see difficulty in maintaining focus/concentration, using the toilet more often (or soiling underwear), ill health (tummy ache) and they may want to spend more time on their own.”
While we all get to grips with the unchartered territory that lies ahead, here are some pointers for helping your children remain mentally resilient and sociable on a daily basis.
Manage your own anxiety
How your children see you dealing with the world at the moment will have a large effect on how they feel about the situation. While it’s completely understandable to be anxious, how you deal with that anxiety is the important part that your children will learn from.
Acknowledging that you sometimes feel anxious is okay, it’s a subtle way of teaching our children that feeling that way – whether it’s anxious, sad or angry – is okay, that they too have ‘permission’ to feel like that. The key is to make sure that you also explain why you’re feeling that way and how you’re managing it, so they learn that there are ways to cope with those feelings.
Try not to fret about home-schooling
Okay so this isn’t an easy one, but it ties in with the point above.
The amount of work being set by schools seems to vary, some schools are saying that they’re putting lots of work up so parents and children can ‘pick and choose’ what to do, but other schools don’t appear to be giving guidelines. Remember, this is an unknown for schools too, they had very little time to prepare, so they’re just doing their best and that is all that is being asked of you.
You are not home-schooling, that is a conscious choice; you are making the best of distance learning with no choice. What works for one family and child may not work for another. No one’s expecting you to teach your kids a whole new syllabus (then we wouldn’t need teachers!). It’s better that you manage just one or two (or none!) home-schooling activities per day but remain even-tempered. Minimising stress in times like this is absolutely vital for everyone’s mental health – yours and your children’s.
Don’t forget that teaching your children valuable life-skills is a different but equally valuable way of home-schooling that will get them thinking and problem-solving. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Teach them basic cooking skills: teach ratio and proportion, weights and measures through cooking.
- Help around the home game: get your children to help around the home and earn points for all the tasks they complete. You can then reward them for a certain number of points achieved as suggested by The Forgotten Toy Shop.
- Teach them the value of money: how much does it cost to run the house? Get then to check the smart meter. Or, set up a tuck shop and give your child £1 per day to spend as suggested by Symonds home school survival ideas.
- Spend time reading classic books to extend their vocab and for enjoyment. Audible is offering free stories that children can instantly stream for free, including titles across six different languages that will help them continue dreaming, learning and just being kids.
- Set older children a challenge – a stretch goal. They can research online and present their ideas back to you before going ahead.
- Keep children learning new skills and having fun with The Scouts’ indoor activity ideas.
- Encourage their inner engineer with the 30 day Lego challenge.
Keep as many existing routines as possible
In the current climate this isn’t going to be easy, but it is important as it will:
- help your child feel safe
- reassure them that things are stable
- ensure they know what’s happening next (especially important for children who have additional needs)
- help give them a sense of control over their lives and what is happening to them.
Getting your child up and going to bed at the same time as a usual school day is a good way to keep routines the same. Some parents also find that dressing them slightly differently during ‘school’ hours also helps create a distinction.
Creating a weekly schedule and pinning it where the whole family can see it can also be helpful as it will be a visible cue to your children as to what’s coming next, and for older children can be used to show occasions when you cannot be disturbed, e.g. during a conference call.
What the schedule looks like will be different for each family and age range of the children within that family as well as the number of hours you work and the flexibility of your employer around those hours. It could be as simple as a few basic activities scattered throughout the day, or it could be a more comprehensive timetable scheduling in educational, physical and fun activities as well as designated break or free times during each working day.
Letting your children have input on the schedule is a good opportunity for them to learn negotiating skills, to feel that their voice is being heard and to get their buy-in to give it the best possible chance of working. It’s also important to create time to review what’s working and what isn’t so you can be sure that it keeps working for the whole family.
Stay sociable and in touch
This is perhaps going to be one area where a lot of children – especially those without siblings – are understandably going to struggle. While nothing is going to be able to replace the valuable, in-person play and socialising time that children thrive on, you can still help to ensure your child remains sociable and in touch with friends and family to mitigate some of the stress that comes with being away from friends.
Make use of phone calls, emails, video calls and social media, but don’t forget good old-fashioned pen and paper as a way for children to express how they’re feeling and to stay in touch with their closest friends. Here are a few ideas:
- Let kids use social media (within reason) and video calls such as Skype or FaceTime to stay connected to their friends even if they aren’t usually allowed to do so.
- Ask grandparents to read bedtime stories via one of the many video conferencing apps available, such as FaceTime, Skype, Whereby.com or Zoom.
- Write a letter – ask your child if they would like to write a letter to a handful of their closest friends, similar to the idea of pen pals from years ago. It’s a great way to practice handwriting and the thrill of (hopefully!) receiving a reply will cheer them up.
- Make a banner – If you’re lucky enough to live close by any of your children’s friends, help your child make a banner that you can hang outside your house. Just simple messages like, “keep smiling” and their friend’s initials can be enough to raise spirits. Or play a game where you ask friends who live close by to put a rainbow in their window, so your child can spot all their friends and know they’re thinking about them.
- Spend time working on non-verbal cues – If your child isn’t confident in social situations, now could be a good time to spend some time working with them to recognise body language and facial expressions (non-verbal skills). One example is watching some of your child’s favourite TV programmes with the sound off and observing what characters are doing and what certain movements may mean. Have fun predicting what you think the characters are saying and how they are feeling.
Struggling with what technology to use and how to set it up? Take a look at these two articles:
- The best video chat apps to turn social distancing into distant socializing
- Step-by-step guide: How to video call your family
Keep up the physical activity
In children as well as adults, physical health and mental health are linked, so keeping your child active each day is essential to keep their mood lifted and their energy levels in check. The current restriction of one session of outdoor time per day can be challenging, but there are ways around it:
- PE with Joe Wicks, The Body Coach, Monday – Friday 9am Live on YouTube (see image)
Joe describes the activity as “A free workout aimed at kids LIVE on my YouTube channel.
The workouts will be fun and suitable for all ages and even adults can get involved. You don’t need any equipment, just tune in to my YouTube channel at 9am each morning for a 30-minute, fun workout.” https://www.thebodycoach.com/blog/pe-with-joe-1254.html
- Disney dance-alongs – a fun way to get active with your kids made in association with This Girl Can. https://www.thisgirlcan.co.uk/activities/disney-workouts/
- Activities for disabled children – change4life has a number of activities designed to get disabled children and young people active indoors, including a seated version of a classic obstacle race. https://www.nhs.uk/change4life/activities/accessible-activities
- Body Beats body percussion online – Music with no instruments. A fun way to combine music and movement, Monday to Friday at 11 am https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4mZhv9HS-g
Try to stick to a (mainly) healthy diet
We all know that giving kids good food helps protect them from disease and – especially important in a home-schooling environment – stabilize their moods and sharpen their minds. A healthy diet can also have a massive impact on a child’s sense of mental and emotional wellbeing. While getting the foods we want may be more of a challenge in the current climate, so too will be sticking to rules about how much ‘junk’ our kids can have on a daily basis in exchange for a quiet life. Stay strong, parents.
As most of us will now also be struggling with finding time to cook the evening meal, here’s an article that shows you how to batch cook for one day to feed the family for a week.
Enjoy the outside world
Being outside, whether that’s in our garden or in a shared green space during our allotted time outside can help bring a sense of calmness. It can also help us feel part of something bigger (nature) as we watch birds fly, see buds shoot and listen to trees blow in the wind. While our children may not appreciate this quite as much as we do, there are certainly activities that you can do together outside if you’re fortunate enough to have your own garden such as build a bug hotel, do a bird watch or grow some veg.
Other ways your children can get involved with nature, regardless of whether you have a garden include:
- Free wildlife themed activity sheets and nature spotter guides to download and try at home and in the garden courtesy of Surrey Wildlife Trust
- Planet Earth and Blue Planet quiz – one set of grandparents who are social distancing had the great idea of watching an episode of Planet Earth and an episode of The Blue Planet every week while we are in lockdown and writing a quiz sheet for their grandchildren based on each episode. Here they share them for others to use, alongside the answer sheets too of course: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2537362239914250/?ref=share
- Let’s Go Live Science with Maddie Moate and Greg Foot – the pair talk about science and nature with a different theme every week. They are live at 11 am Monday to Friday, but you can catch up later on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4mZhv9HS-g
Above all, try to have some fun, make some memories and enjoy some quality time with your children. Without doubt we all face challenging times ahead, but we can and will get through it. Now’s also a good time to check with your employer if you have access to any Employee Assistance Programmes or services such as Parent Cloud that provide an extra level of support to employees – for everything from mental health and debt to child behaviour and parenting – during these tough times.