Calm kids in chaos
Parenting is never easy. But particularly following two years of pandemic, we’re having to face a challenge that previous generations might have taken for granted for their children - a battle for their happiness and mental health. So how do we help our kids stay calm in spite of the chaos they may feel surrounds them?
The impact of the pandemic on children hasn’t just been in how it has affected them directly. The lockdowns have rocked families, change and uncertainty in circumstances have raised stress levels, and loss and grief left some reeling. The pandemic has challenged many of the foundations on which we built our lives - the things that gave us a sense of security and safety as well as understanding about ourselves and the world.
For our children those challenges can be even more destabilising, as their young minds struggle to process what has happened and what this means. Children live by somewhat naive beliefs that as they grow older usually gradually evolve - the belief for example that their parents or main adult caregivers can basically control or solve anything or their simple trust in people to be there for them. Life can always throw unexpected curve balls for some children, but in a unique way a whole generation have had to question those beliefs - and have relearned new understandings about how the world works.
Meanwhile of course, the world returns to something more resembling normal. But whilst for us we can return to a kind of ‘pre pandemic blueprint’ that we lived by for decades before, young children in particular do not have that. Some may only remember pandemic life. Others have adjusted so fully that this return to ‘normal’ is for them just another change as significant and potentially scary as the first lockdown was.
The good news is that children don’t face these things alone. The role of the adults around them is to support them and shape their understanding, helping them to work out how a complex world works. And that role doesn’t just fall to parents. Whether you are an Aunt or Uncle, Grandparent, Godparent, children’s team volunteer or just best mate to a child or children, YOU can make a difference in this moment of adjustment for them.
So what is the impact of all this on children - and how do we support them. Here are 5 practical things we expect - and tips for how to help.
1. Expect Emotions
This may sound obvious but in a world where so often the only messages we hear about emotional health relate to illness, we can be so alarmed ourselves by displays of emotion that they trigger panic. But emotions are normal for children - especially in times of change and adjustment. And they don’t always know what they are, or how to handle them. Remember the toddler tantrums? Children become overwhelmed more easily than adults by emotions which can flare out of the blue. They may not identify physical ‘symptoms’ of emotion and describe them instead in those pure terms. They may just act out, feeling unsettled or reacting to tension, but not knowing why and presenting you with challenging behaviour often at the times you could least do without it.
How we can help? One of our jobs as parents or supportive adults to children is to help them develop an understanding of their emotions - not as things to be feared, but as part of the way their mind works. We can help by talking about emotions, not just in the moments they are causing problems, but in quieter thoughtful moments, or playtime and games. Talk about emotions, what they feel like physically, what thoughts they trigger or are accompanied by, what they make us feel like doing, and what you can do to deal with them - without getting into trouble! But bear in mind that in the moment of an emotional flare, your child won’t be able to process well or chat. Your job then is all about not being drawn into panic and overwhelm yourself, but to take a deep breath and then, in an age-appropriate way, try to help them calm down. Think about how you can provide them with some distance to diffuse the situation, and offer comfort or space, recognising that different children need different things when they are upset or angry.
2. Create Conversations
Perhaps the biggest need children have in a moment of change and disruption - just like us adults - is space to process. This is literally about giving their minds the chance to understand the things that are happening all around them and make sense of things. Until that mental journey is complete and they can put an experience behind them, what you will see is emotions like anxiety and frustration - which are the brain’s way of drawing thoughts or memories to the front of someone’s focus and attention to make sure they do think about them. But young children, in particular, are likely to need help working through some of the things they have seen and been through from the adults around them.
The thing is - if we wait until a conversation is needed, that chat can feel intense or unnatural. The trick is to develop really good spaces where children can chat if and when they need to - and to make them part of your rhythm and routine. Think about what works for your child(ren). Some may love a coffee time with Mum or Dad - or even better if its another adult they love and look up to. Another may go for a kick-about, or a walk into the hills. Some love time spent over lego or craft or cooking. Once the space is there, subjects will naturally bubble up into it - and if you do need to drop something in yourself, you’ve got the opportunity to do so.
3. Have the Hugs!
Remember the last time you went skating? You have moments of it feeling ok, when you can step out with confidence - but then moments when your balance goes and you feel wobbly. In those moments the natural impulse is to reach out and grab something secure to hang on to. Children are much the same - except their need for stability and security is greater because they haven’t formed the adult sense of identity and confidence in themselves that will enable them to start to strike out on their own. But whatever age your child is, this moment may see them needing more comfort and security from you than you might expect for their age or stage. This might even look like a regression or a return to behaviour they had left behind.
It’s important to recognise in these moments that actually the journey through childhood is very rarely a straight line and these fluctuations are actually quite normal. Particularly in the first stage of adolescence, as children reach the end of primary school, those early nudges into independence can actually feel really scary and trigger these moments when their childlike need for the adults around them returns. And if life has suddenly thrown a curveball, it's natural again for them to reach out and hold on to their sources of support.
And of course - children have also experienced a very unusual, unique limit on their natural physical expression of love and affection, at first having to stop themselves rushing to hug people they loved outside their household, until eventually it became automatic not to try. Physical contact with safe adults has a hugely positive effect on children, releasing hormones that help them feel secure and counteract stress and anxiety. So putting those hugs back in and relearning that those things are good and important is a fantastic thing to do where it is safe to do so.
So if it's you a child comes to for comfort and hugs, recognise it as a good thing that they see you as a safe space to return to when the outside world feels a bit daunting. Respond to their need for comfort - and cheer them on in the moments they go out on their own. This kind of boomerang behaviour, going out into the world, or school, or friendships or whatever it is - then returning to safe people and places for encouragement and comfort - is very normal and healthy. Once their mind settles you’ll see things return to ‘normal’ - whatever that is!
4. Test their Trust
Here’s a practical one to end on. One thing many children have learned in this season that we wish they hadn’t, is to lose trust and hope. For so many two years worth of experience has taught them that if they let themselves look forward to something, or trust in someone, those hopes might be dashed or lost. Whether it is missed milestones like birthday parties, loved friends and family members they couldn’t see for so long, or the unexpected positive tests that led to not even being able to leave the house, they’ve learned that the world is unpredictable and uncertain.
This is a really important thing we can help their minds to re-learn, as we move out of the time where things were most uncertain. We can’t protect them from anything unexpected, but we can let their minds literally reform connections and gradually learn to trust and anticipate good things again. Try starting with small things - plan on a Monday things you want to do at the weekend - and then let your child see them happen. Make them as concrete as possible, writing down plans or thinking about what exactly they would like to do - but don’t be too ambitious. Remember the important thing isn’t that they do something amazing - just that they plan and see those things become real.
No, not them this time. This one is about you. You see, children experience the world through the filter of adults around them. They often look to adults in moments they are not sure, to see how they are reacting. What they see in the responses of those significant adults shapes their own response.
And right now, if we’re honest, many of us are really really tired. The pandemic didn’t just take a toll on children. It didn’t just trigger emotions for children. It didn’t just produce grief and loss for them.
Maybe the most important thing you can do this week for your child’s mental health is something for your own. That isn’t indulgence or weakness or time wasted - it is about making sure you have the emotional energy you need to support them and guide them through this moment of change and adjustment. Ask yourself ‘what feels relentless right now?’ What might it look like to get away from that for a moment? If it is busyness and demand, get some space and relaxation. If it is the relentless yearning for someone you miss and lost touch with through the lockdowns, can you reconnect? If it is powerful emotions triggered by what you have been through maybe you need to find a therapeutic space to guide you through your own processing. Take the steps you need to - and if you struggle to do it for you, do it for them.