Helping our children to thrive through uncertainty

While children are back in school, there remains much uncertainty in the longer term, due to the ongoing threat of Covid.  We don't just want our children to 'get through' the next term, we want them to be happy and to thrive so asked Rachel Bloggs, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist to suggest how we can support through this transitional period and help regulate their emotions.

Below is Rachel's response:

 

I think it’s safe to say that, so far, 2020 has been a rollercoaster.  Children in particular have been impacted by the sudden “pause” in life, from their education to their social and emotional wellbeing.  What was once theirs for the taking has become uncertain and, for some, scary.

 

In this post, we will be thinking about the best way to support children going back to school, as well as suggesting strategies to help with emotional regulation.

 

How can we help our children transition back to school and thrive?

 

School, for many, is a safe haven.  Supporting our children as they go back into education involves working alongside them during this transitional period. It’s important for them to know that they are not alone in how they are feeling and that it’s ok to have good and not so good days. 

 

Here are some suggestions on how to help regulate your child’s emotions if they are worried about being back in school.

 

Openness – be curious about their day.  Ask open questions such as “how did you feel at school today?”, “what did you enjoy?” and “what was difficult?”

 

Empathy – children respond to feeling understood.  When exploring how they are feeling, it helps to attune to what is present.  Welcome all of their feelings and reassure them that it’s ok to feel this way. Knowing that they can bring difficult feelings home will help with the anxiety and worries about being back in school and what this might entail.

 

Patience – it can be difficult to see our children struggling, and we often just want to turn back the clock to when being at school was “easier”.  Unfortunately, they (and us) have been through a collective trauma –  an adverse experience that was completely out of all of our hands.  Patience with our children and ourselves, along with A LOT of self-compassion, will help provide the emotional tools we need to get through this. 

 

How can we help manage oversensitivity and heightened emotions?

 

The majority of children will be feeling sensitive to the current situation, and feelings can become heightened during periods of uncertainty.  I would recommend a daily check-in with your child/children.  Take time out of your day, every day, to reflect and explore.  Engaging on a daily basis helps to regulate those overwhelming and difficult feelings.  Your job as the parent/carer is to provide a safe space for this to take place.

 

When children engage with imaginative play, they process their difficult feelings.  Encourage your child to engage with unstructured play time, including dressing up, playing with toys, and making and creating.  Setting aside time in the day for this to happen allows our children to work through unconscious feelings that might be presenting as fear and anger. Some children can also become introverted when their feelings are heightened, so free play gives them space to act out in a situation they feel in control of.

 

How do we help children to maintain focus/concentration?

 

A lot of children and young people find concentrating and staying focused challenging.  Especially at the moment, children may feel an added pressure to achieve and complete tasks.  I think it’s important to remember that each child is unique and learns in their own way.

 

Here are some tips on how this can be managed:

 

  1. Set aside a reasonable amount of time for your child to practice focusing on a specific task. I would always allow more time than less. If a child completes a task before the set time, they are more likely to feel empowered and successful.
  1. Do one thing at a time. This helps to prevent their brain from feeling overwhelmed and therefore less willing to stay focused. Also include planned breaks to give your child time to reset before the next task. 
  1. Set aside homework time and space. Incorporate this into your child’s day so it becomes part of their routine, and try to stick to the same time each day to help build in a regular structure. Children respond to clear boundaries.  An additional tip is to not enforce this time straight after school.  Allow space for free time and a healthy snack beforehand.
  1. Practice belly breathing. This helps to regulate the nervous system and creates a sense of calm. Encourage your child (you can also do this together) to sit comfortably and close their eyes or focus on something in front of them.  Suggest they place a hand on their belly or heart.  Take a big breath in through the nose and out through the mouth to start with (encourage a lion’s breath if needed), then begin to breathe in for a count of two or three.  Encourage them to visualise the breath going down their throat and into their belly, creating space and calm. Then breathe out for two or three counts.  Repeat this three to four times, or longer if needed.
  1. Practice observing things in the moment. Staying with the present encourages a child’s mind to stay focused.  The “squeeze and let go” technique can be a great tool for bringing your child’s awareness into the present; this can be done through tensing different muscles in the body for five seconds and then slowing and releasing.

 

How can we navigate the change in a parent/child relationship after such a long period of time together?

 

This period of uncertainty and change has meant that children have become reliant on their parents and carers.  Children of a school age are generally (with exceptions) at a stage in their development where they are becoming independent thinkers and decision-makers.  Being at home for such an extended period of time may have created a regression in your relationship.  This means that children are once again (just like when they were an infant) solely relying on their parents/carers for all of their needs to be met. 

 

This can cause issues with boundaries, resurfacing tantrums and a change in attachment patterns.  Perhaps you have noticed your child becoming more anxious when you leave them, or there is tension building where you are trying to work from home as well as home school … this is completely normal and understandable.

 

I would strongly recommend parents/carers give themselves some time and space to reflect on the past few months.  Share your stories with loved ones and friends.  Revisit the highs and the lows, because they were all relevant and a part of this experience.

 

Now, onto working through this with your child/children.  This may need some set time aside to reflect on together, just like the daily check-in that was suggested earlier.  Creating a space to think about this together will help you all navigate through this change. 

 

Name your feelings as well as what you are worried about. I think it’s also important to integrate positive experiences that you have had together, so that your child does not internalise the difficulties that you may have faced along the way as being completely their fault.  This whole process has been a shared experience, and there was no handbook on how to manage it.

 

Here are some suggestions on how this transition could be managed:

 

Use creative techniques such as the bag of worries.  Each person writes down a worry they have and places it into the worry bag.  A worry can be placed in the bag whenever needed.  For example, “I’m worried we will argue more now you are back at school”.  At the end of each week, take some time together to reflect on these.  Explore how you can work together to support each other.

 

Make time for each other outside of school, work and general routines –  away from gadgets and other distractions.  Spend some time in nature, cook something at home together, watch a film or dance to your favourite song.  Creating space for each other means that extra time spent together during the lockdown hasn’t gone unnoticed and won’t be forgotten. 

 

Reset and implement boundaries at home.  Children need boundaries to feel safe and secure.  These may have become blurred over lockdown, but there’s no reason why they can’t be reinstalled.  Revert back to any techniques that worked before, and have compassion for yourself and your family if there are challenges along the way.  Behaviour charts, displaying boundary rules and sticking to set consequences when rules are broken are just some of the ways to help with this. 

 

To end, I want to acknowledge how difficult the past few months have been. Whatever you are feeling about your child going back to school and your relationship adapting to this … it’s ok! There is no right or wrong way to manage this, and I hope you can remember that children are super resilient and robust, especially when faced with adversity.  As long as they feel loved, safe and understood, they will be able to navigate through this ongoing uncertainty.

 

Rachel Bloggs MA UKCP

Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist

Rachel specialises in developmental trauma, adverse childhood experiences and working with children who are in the care system. Rachel's experience also includes working with: anxiety, depression, grief, loss and survivors of sexual abuse.

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