You’ve heard it before, and we agree – these are uncertain, unusual times that we are all trying to navigate. The new language, the new rules, the constant flow of information, the sanctions that have been placed on our daily lives are just some of the many hurdles we are struggling to come to terms with. Throw in the juggle of work commitments and educating our children from home, and you’ve got a melting pot of stress and anxiety. These fast-paced changes are difficult for even the most level-headed of adults to manage. But it can be even harder for young people to understand why their world has been turned upside down.
While you manage and come to terms with your own feelings associated with this ‘new normal’, one question that is top of mind for all parents (believe us, you are not alone with this one) is: “how can I help my kids cope during the Coronavirus crisis?” In an effort to help you answer this question, we have asked the experienced family psychologists from The Jacaranda Centre to provide some helpful tips associated with identifying and managing anxiety. We will also offer a speech pathology perspective when it comes to communication during challenging times.
When is Worry Worrying?
This may sound odd, particularly in a time when we are all feeling worried, but there is a difference between unhelpful and helpful worry. For parents to be able to respond to their child’s needs, we must understand when our child’s ‘worries’ move into the space of anxiety.
Our friends from The Jacaranda Centre remind us that ‘worry’ is perfectly normal in the current situation and can be helpful. Worries are focused as thoughts and are about the here and now. We can use these focused thoughts to deal with more realistic concerns and can lead to useful problem solving. For example, if your child is worried about spreading germs, their worry might help them understand the importance of washing their hands thoroughly.
Conversely, anxiety or unhelpful worry manifests as a physical experience in our bodies and can exacerbate negative thoughts. If your child is anxious, they may feel distressed, have problems thinking clearly, and may be unable to understand or plan simple activities that they can normally do. This will, in turn, make them feel out of control. Anxiety can also magnify existing communication difficulties and make it harder for young people to talk about their concerns and how they feel.
As children with speech and language difficulties are often more susceptible to experiencing anxiety and unhelpful thoughts, parents need to understand how they may exhibit these feelings in different ways.
Actions Often Speak Louder than Words
Before we can help our children manage their anxious feelings, we must first be able to recognise when they are in state of unhelpful worry. Children with speech and language difficulties often struggle to communicate their feelings clearly, so you may find that your child will respond to certain situations (or uncertain situations) with physical actions including non-verbal gestures and challenging behaviours. While this can be hard to manage, particularly when these outbursts add to your own mental load, it is important to take a moment and remember that behaviour is a form of communication. Ask yourself “what is my child trying to tell me?”
Behaviour that is difficult to change or manage is often a reaction to needs not being met. Your child may overreact to certain situations or seem like they are regressing in skills and can’t or won’t do what they could a few weeks ago. High levels of stress and anxiety can interfere with their ability to organise thoughts, and think clearly, resulting in a genuine struggle to demonstrate specific skills, including language and communication skills.
When your child exhibits challenging behaviours or seems to not be able to perform a usual task, they could be trying to express one or more of the following feelings or problems:
- Frustration – they can’t do something or can’t tell you what they want
- Fear – they are frightened of something
- Strong feelings – they are unhappy, angry or dislike something or a situation
- Anxiety – they are feeling confused, worried, stressed, unable to think clearly
- Hyperactivity – they have excess energy and cannot seem to burn it off
- Discomfort – they are in pain and can’t tell you
- Attention – they are making attempts to meet their need for attention, attachment and interaction by behaving in a certain way and they are wanting engagement with you
- Difficulty with understanding – if your child has difficulties with understanding, they might not know what is happening around them or retain information that you have given them
- Difficulty processing or making sense of sensory experiences in the environment –some children may have hyper or hypo-sensitivities to certain stimuli in an environment and these feelings can be exacerbated by stress and uncertainty
- Seeking sensory input and/or experiences
All children will respond to situations differently and communicate their needs in different ways. During this particularly challenging time, remember that your child is facing significant change. Mum, Dad and siblings are home more, they can’t go to school, they can’t have play dates, their afternoon activities are cancelled, they can’t even give Grandma a hug. All these changes amount to feelings of uncertainty, so pay attention to those outbursts and know that there are some things you can do to help your child cope.
How Can I Help My Child Cope?
From both a psychology and speech pathology perspective, clear communication is key in times of crisis. This includes helping your child with how they communicate their needs and feelings, and ensuring you, the parent, is able to clearly communicate the changes, support your family, and help everyone (including yourself) remain positive during this time. To help you establish clarity and calm in this time of chaos, consider our following tips:
Talk About Feelings
Let’s face it, we are all overwhelmed with conflicting feelings at present. You may be relieved that your family is safe and well, but also scared about what might happen. By understanding and talking about our feelings, we can help our children understand how they feel and know that it is ok to experience all kinds of feelings during this challenging time.
Make sure you help your children name their feelings as they experience them i.e. Are you feeling worried about missing school? Do you feel sad that you can’t go to the park? This will help your kids acknowledge and understand their feelings, and also demonstrates to them that you are listening and understand how they feel.
It can also be helpful to share your own experiences and how you feel about the situation. But remember to keep it relatively small so your child can relate. This could include acknowledging that you also feel sad about not seeing Grandma in person.
Encourage Open Communication
For anyone experiencing a challenging situation, communication is key in helping them navigate the scenario. For children, this is perhaps even more important as we are their eyes and ears in many of these situations and can help them make sense of what they are seeing and hearing.
It is important to talk openly with your children about what they are worried about and create as much security when it comes to their mental well-being as possible. Social stories and visual charts related to the coronavirus situation may be helpful tools when it comes to discussing the situation with your kids. You can use resources like that to help them understand the impact this crisis will have on their daily lives, and what they can do to help.
Maintain a Familiar Routine
Even when you are all at home together, maintaining a regular routine that your kids are familiar with will help then navigate their day with confidence. For example, your children should continue to get up, eat and go to bed just as they would if they were going to school. You can also schedule in specific times for play, schoolwork and rest. Remember, free time and down time are really important when it comes to encouraging your child to process difficult feelings and find a sense of release.
By ensuring consistency and structure, your entire family will benefit from knowing what is going to happen and when. This, in turn, reduces stress and encourages calm and an ability for all to cope.
Stay Connected Virtually
Socialising plays an important role in regulating your mood and helping you stay grounded. The same is true for your children.
Even if your kids aren’t generally allowed to utilise digital devices, this is the time to bend the rules and let them connect with their peers via a platform like Zoom or Facetime. This type of communication can help your children to feel less alone and mitigate some of the stress that comes from being away from their friends. Technology can also help younger children feel closer to relatives or friends they can’t see in person.
And let’s not forget about the opportunities to connect with therapists. You and your children can continue to build confidence and communication skills via various online services including those offered by A Growing Understanding and The Jacaranda Centre.
Look After You
It’s completely understandable to be anxious right now, how could you not be? But how you manage your own anxiety can have a big impact on your children. If you catch yourself falling down the rabbit hole of panicked news messages and unhelpful thoughts, take a break from news and social media, step outside and breathe.
By making time for yourself to relax, breathe and even exercise (within the recommended guidelines), you can keep your worries in check. This will help your whole family navigate this uncertain situation a little better.
Keep It Positive
The power of positive thinking has never been more pertinent. By allowing your kids to enjoy their time away from school, playing outside and the general sense of joy they may be experiencing by having the whole family at home will help them embrace a positive mindset. But make sure they understand that this time together will feel different.
You can use this positivity to explain the situation in a lighter way. For example, “It is so cool to have everyone at home. We are going to have a good time. Remember, though, that we do still need to work, and we will stick to our routine.”
As we try and navigate this ‘new normal’, our children need to feel safe and supported, and trust that they’ll be listened to and understood in a time when their world has been turned upside down.
With a better understanding of how your kids present their feelings, of how you can support them and how you need to support yourself; you will have the strength to be their beacon of light. You will be able to provide stability and comfort in this uncertain time. And remember, you are not alone. There are support services available for families that will help you stay connected and confident during the coronavirus crisis. Just talk to us or our friends at The Jacaranda Centre to find the support you and your family might need.