Family recovery from the trauma impact of the pandemic
The start of 2021 has seen an unexpected lockdown and it's taking its toll on all of us. To help navigate this challenging time as a family and support both children's mental health and parental mental health, we asked Tasha Bailey, an Integrative Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist how we might recognise the signs of trauma and begin the process of recovery.
Here is Tasha's response:
“To be a good parent, you need to take care of yourself so that you have the physical and emotional energy to take care of your family” - Michelle Obama
The start of the new year has already been tough for many parents. Not long after 2021 began, the government announced the extension and expansion of the winter lockdown. Now with most UK counties labelled as tier 3 or 4, schools have been closed, exams cancelled and employees are obligated to work from their home. With all of that in mind, it’s a tough few months for parents as they work from home whilst also zoom-schooling and caring for their children.
This means parents might be feeling more pressure, as they take on additional roles at home. Being a home-schooler isn’t easy, nor is being in lockdown during the winter months. There’s less opportunity to get space for rest and recovery.
The added tension for key workers
And what about parents who happen to be key workers? In the UK, the key worker force is 10 million strong and their work consists of crucial acts of service within our society. This includes those who work in health and social care, education/child care, public services, security and transport. For parents who are key worker, they are dealing with a different layer of stress to parenting in a pandemic. Many are still having to work out in the field, which might result in very anxious, sometimes envious, children.
Fatigue might be a common theme for many of these parents. With the strain of a lockdown, they might find themselves working longer hours and taking on more responsibility at work. These added pressures will often come without a salary increase to recognise their value. With all of this, key workers may feel periods of exhaustion and burn out. And so by the time they return home, they may have little energy to give but find themselves back in their role of active parents. This is emotionally tiring. As humans, we have to take care of our own needs before we become overwhelmed with catering to those of others.
The trauma impact on parents & children
For both children and adults, key workers or not, the past twelve months have been filled with uncertainty and unfamiliarity which has disrupted our typical daily lives, structures and choices. These are typical ingredients for trauma. This is the distress caused from overwhelming stress within the body, which impacts our ability to cope and make sense of our emotions. It involves us moving into survival mode, which has a limited capacity. Often, we can become stuck in this mode over time, especially if the stressful event remains unresolved (read Waking The Tiger by Peter Levine). In other words, with us dipping in and out of lockdown and the continuing effects of a pandemic, our bodies are existing in survival mode and from a place of toxic stress.
When our emotional capacity is hindered in this way, we will respond to everyday life in one of four responses:
Fight: We respond to the environment with aggression and control. An example would be a child who has been more prone to temper tantrums since the pandemic, or a frustrated and irritable parent. Our anger might be the only way that we can exercise some control during an uncertain time.
Flight: We respond to our environment with fear, panic and avoidance. This might look like a child who worries about health or avoids school work, or a parent who keeps themselves busy every moment of the day. The idea is that our bodies are “fleeing” from the things that make us feel panic.
Freeze: We respond to our environment in a detached way, by disconnecting ourselves. This would describe a spaced out child who can’t stop playing Mindcraft, or equally the parent who is glued to Netflix when they get home. These things disconnect us from reality, so that we end up hibernating and numbing our feelings.
Fawn: We react to our environment with people-pleasing and masking how we really are. Funnily enough, this might look like the child who is apparently happy all of the time or the parent who finds it hard to set more boundaries with home and work. We pretend or mask how we really feel to avoid further trouble and conflict. This gives us the false belief that we will be happy when we make others feel happy.
Now if you notice one or more of these in yourself, don’t feel guilty! These are trauma responses and your body has instinctively and unconsciously employed them to help you get through such a weird and unfamiliar time period. We ALL experience these reactions at varying degrees - it is very human of us. Notice what your trauma responses might be and give compassion to what deeper feelings might be happening for you.
Secondly, you might notice some of these trauma responses for your child. Again, this is not your fault but down to how the world around them has gone through such a change that we are all trying to get our head around.
Resilience & Recovery
Despite toxic stress, all is not lost! The State of the Nation UK report found that most family relationships were stable during the spring lockdown in 2020, with 25% of families reporting an improvement. This shows there is so much capacity to not only thrive as a family but also to grow closer and with better quality relationships. Furthermore, a study conducted in Italy also demonstrated how a protective factor for children’s wellbeing was actually dependent on the belief that parents had on their own competence.
When we are in survival mode, genuine connection with ourselves and others brings us to a calmer, more regulated place. In order to regulate your body and get out of survivor mode, as well as for your child or children, here are some wellbeing tips for this next season of lockdown:
Tip 1: Establish Your Self Care First
As a parent, it can be hard to start with yourself. However, it is important to find your grounding and support as an initial priority so that you can then teach your children how to find theirs. Reflect on what you need and what makes you feel good - how can you add that into your schedule? A good idea is to schedule a time in the week which is your personal time, even if it's just for one hour. Connect with other parents who you resonate with. It may even be parents on social media. My favourites are @candicebraithwaite, @thepsychologymum, @mumologist, @nina_tame and @1judilove. Lastly, ensure that you maintain good boundaries. Try not to off-load to your children, but instead to trusted people in your network. You might want to consider therapy or therapeutic spaces.
Tip 2: Routine Quality Time Together
Routine, structure and togetherness help us to feel safe. Start and end each day with a routine of togetherness, such as eating breakfast together, getting ready for work/school together, bedtime routine etc. Predictability will help your child feel safe and contained.
Ensure that there is a time in the day where your child can share their thoughts and feelings with you. The PepTalk Pillow is an incredible way of doing this as part of your bedtime routine. Ask your child about how they're feeling, as well as about the best and most difficult parts of their day.
Schedule in non-negotiable alone time with each child, where you do something together which is important to them. That might include playing their favourite video game, cooking or climbing trees. This will allow your child to feel seen and for them to have intimate time with you (without other siblings or distractions). Don’t forget to put your phone on silent where you can.
Tip 3: Prepare for Time Apart
Whether you will be going to work outdoors or in your spare room, time apart will be inevitable. Children fear being forgotten by their parents, and there are some simple ways to reassure them. The first is to give them something of yours that they can look after in your absence. This is called a transitional object, and is similar to the blanket or teddy bear that they might have clung to as a toddler. The object will remind them of you in many ways, and will reassure them that you will be back. Choose something age-appropriate which they can easily associate with you. This could be a watch or piece of jewellery, an item of your clothing or even a family pet. Despite you not being there, your child will feel like they still have access to you by seeing, smelling or holding the object.
It is also a good idea to have a conversation with your child about who they can speak to about their feelings when you’re not available. Is there a relative or family friend that is safe and emotionally available? Or would they prefer to write in a diary or journal instead.
Tip 4: Heal Our Bodies
As mentioned, trauma and stress happen in our bodies. If we don’t relieve our beautiful bodies, then stress hormones and adrenaline will be building up without us knowing it. Its therefore important for us to attend to our bodies as much as our minds and emotions. When weather allows it, go for a family walk in the park or have a dance before dinner. If you have a games console, you could even find some family fun which gets your body moving. Exercise is great for making us feel calmer and more regulated.
Let's not forget hugs! Hugs give us Oxytocin, the love hormone. So if your child is consenting, invite them for regular hugs. You can also teach them the five step self-holding exercise, which they can use when you’re away.
These are just a few ideas - but essentially no one knows you and your child than you do! It has been a testing year, so be compassionate with yourself.
You’ve totally got this!
Integrative Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist, London
Tasha works with both children & adults, guiding them in healing their trauma narratives using creativity and compassion. She specialises in working with complex trauma, anxiety, race and cultural identity. As a Black British woman, she believes that therapy and conversations about mental health need to be culturally appropriate and relatable. Therefore, she uses her Instagram platform @RealTalk.Therapist to speak about this, as well as self-love and intersectional wellness.