I’m Dr. Amy Stanton an Educational, Child and Adolescent Psychologist from UCL Institute of Education.
I work in schools and specialist settings across London and the UK giving advice to parents, carers, professionals, children and young people to improve mental health and learning skills. My approach is systemic which means I help children thrive in their microsystems; their families, friendship groups, schools and wider communities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created uncertainty for families across the globe. While striving to protect their children’s mental health, parents are tasked with navigating home school documents, managing sibling conflict, their own work commitments, household chores and online food deliveries. The country has been thrust into a world of new rules and routines with no support from grandparents or carers, no choice or warning. Given the facts, it is no wonder parents are feeling under pressure to become masterminds of lockdown overnight. In these unprecedented times, as a psychologist for children, I recommend self-care, challenging self-criticism and setting realistic expectations to promote positive mental health.
How Can I Manage My Child’s Anxiety?
Normalising is important. Let your child know anxiety is a feeling everybody has sometimes. Reassure them it is good to say when they feel worried because talking about it helps. Teach your child to notice changes in their body such as sweaty palms or a racing heart and explain these are natural reactions. As a parent, try not to feel under pressure to know the answer to all your child’s questions. Let them see your emotions and teach them that all feelings are healthy and accepted. Show empathy, listen respectfully and let your child know you’ve heard. Reassure them they are safe, this time will pass and life will return to normal.
You can help reduce your child’s anxiety through breathing exercises where they see their tummy rise-and-fall and by teaching them to positively reframe negative thoughts. They may want to write their worries on paper and put them into a ‘worry jar’. Humour is very powerful and brings a sense of relief, and encouraging your child to talk aloud about interesting sounds, smells and sights in their surroundings will help ground them in the present. Calling a friend provides a positive distraction and outdoor play, routine and management of social media are other ways to promote emotional resilience. Keep in mind there are plenty of online therapy services to offer additional support.
Everything I’ve Read Says I Need A Clear Structure For My Kids. Is It Really That Important?
Knowing the structure of their days, especially because days can look similar right now, helps children feel emotionally contained. An hourly schedule is too rigid for most, instead try agreeing a loose outline of what weekdays will look like, with time for learning and chilling out. Your schedule won’t be perfect immediately so use trial and error to discover what works for your family. Encourage your child to talk through or write down their routine at the beginning of each day to give them a sense of ownership. During the day, be confident to mix up learning tasks to suit your child’s interests. Creative writing about their favourite superhero or maths questions about a celebrity they admire will increase focus and motivation.
A routine also gives you scope to factor in some ‘me time’. Whether it’s a 30-minute Pilates video with your headphones in and the kids watching on, or a jog around the block, self-care is important and knowing how your day will look makes carving out time for yourself a little easier.
School Are Sending Home So Many Documents I Can’t Keep Up. What Can I Do?
While the kids are in the unique position of being out of school, try to enjoy the change of pace, extra time with family members and the sunshine (while it lasts), completing the school work within your child’s capacity. When the school gates re-open we likely won’t have another experience like this in our lifetimes, so try to keep expectations around schoolwork realistic.
Most schools have made it clear that families should do what is possible based on their individual circumstances while protecting their children’s mental health. This is advice worth following. Keep in mind that every family is different and right now you need to do what is right for yours. Not all learning needs to be conventional. Writing a diary is great for handwriting practice, emotional processing and creates an artefact which can be kept forever. Committing to a daily bite-size activity, like typing, can teach a new skill children are not offered in school and spelling games on the trampoline combine learning with a physical outlet.
Your child’s teacher may be a parent too, if so they are likely to be feeling added pressure. This may lead to more rather than less schoolwork being emailed in an attempt to satisfy the requests of as many parents as possible. Take stock and reassure yourself teachers are well equipped to help pupils catch up and will support your child to fill any learning gaps when school re-opens.
How Can I Manage My Anxiety?
We are going through a national crisis and it is normal to feel anxious. If you notice a surge, remind yourself the feeling will pass, take deep breaths and drink water. These are actions which slow the central nervous system. When we feel worried our thoughts naturally wonder to self criticism and doubt; we forecast, often inaccurately about the future and before we know it our minds can enter a downward spiral causing an increase in cortisol (stress hormone). Since we are not experts at staying in the present we need to practice. If you notice your mind wondering, bring yourself back to the here-and-now and remember your future predictions may be based on emotional, rather than logical reasoning. Calling somebody who makes you feel relaxed and upbeat, mindfulness and short guided meditations, especially before falling to sleep are helpful.
Another important step is to take control of your social media. By turning off news alerts, limiting broadcasts and unfollowing bloggers who do not make you feel good you will notice a positive change in mood. Commitment to fresh air, family time, regular mealtimes and acts of generosity for other people are also methods to increase serotonin (happy chemicals). Your GP and local psychology service are available for support and advice.
How Can I Manage Homeschooling And My Day Job?
If there was ever a time to accept it is okay to not be okay it is now. Be kind to yourself; your child needs love and support, not the perfect parent or schedule. If you have a partner and you both work from home, agree a loose routine in advance of the week which clarifies times when one of you will carry out work tasks, virtual meetings and self-care. If you are getting flack from your employer about your work efforts don’t be afraid to speak up. Explain what you have capacity to do today and suggest a meeting to support staff mental health and modifying the usual deadlines or working hours. Other people are probably feeling the same as you. We need to lead by example and carry the torch to support our mental health, that of our kids and even colleagues.
In advance of the school week, putting an hour or two aside to organise your child’s learning for the week will pay off. If during the week, you feel like you are failing, gently remind yourself you are doing your best and have not been trained for this.
Play research tells us that nowadays young people have far less opportunities to play than in previous decades. Today, busy schedules and after school commitments can inhibit children’s natural creativity, independence and leadership skills. So letting your child be ‘bored’ at home can be positive and provide a chance to take ownership of their play. Time building dens, looking for insects and making up games alone or with siblings promotes negotiation, cooperation and imagination. Watching a film on the sofa with a sibling has benefits for emotional bonding and encouraging your child to play alone sometimes, while you focus on your needs, promotes independence, flexibly and patience. These aren’t parenting faux pas, they are chances to bolster important skills children and adolescents need for resilience and growth now and in their futures.
Dr Amy Stanton
Mum-of-two and avid Kidadler Dr Amy Stanton is an Educational, Child & Adolescent Psychologist from the UCL Institute of Education.