May 04th, 2020
In Australia, where I am sitting out the pandemic, schools are re-opening gradually in some states. In the UK there is talk of primary schools going back on 1st June. Reactions to that possibility will differ according to people’s different experiences of at-home learning during lockdown, their need to work themselves and anxieties about the degree of risk posed to physical health by reopening schools. Of course parents, teachers and authorities are concerned about the impact on our children’s education by keeping them away from face to face learning. But another important factor is the loss of social interaction they are experiencing at potentially formative times in their lives for acquiring and practising social skills.
Human beings are social animals and our brains are wired for social interactions which are essential for our wellbeing. Much of our brain evolution has occurred because of our social nature. We’ve all missed being able to engage with our friends and there has quite rightly been a lot of concern about the effect of loneliness on our mental wellbeing. The body perceives social isolation as a threat to a basic human need and it triggers a stress response but if stress hormones remain at elevated levels for too long they can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, infectious illness and cognitive deterioration. So not having friends around is bad for our health.
But our children are likely to suffer even more than us as a result of this time of reduced social contact. Younger children do most of their learning through play with others and engagement with their peers in early years’ settings is crucial for learning the social skills that are the foundation for all their future relationships. Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, Associate Professor at the Early Start centre at the University of Wollongong, says. “Ninety per cent of their brain is developed by the time they reach five years old. Missing out on early education experiences is going to have a bigger impact than, say, missing out on year 4.” Friendship skills develop over time so the over fives are still fine-tuning their social skills. When children play with and learn alongside others they learn these vital skills for life:
Our teens are also suffering disproportionately from social deprivation as in this period of development social interaction is of profound importance. In their excellent book ‘The Incredible Teenage Brain’ Bettina Hohnen, Jane Gilmour and Tara Murphy explain that in adolescence social pain is experienced as strongly as physical pain. Some teens will have actually appreciated an opportunity to be away from the school setting if that has been a place of discomfort for them, either academically or socially. Introverts may have relished a home-learning environment that suited them better but even these young people are expressing a yearning to be back amongst their peers.
While we can’t have playdates just now there are things that parents can do to help our young children develop the social skills they need and to give older children the chance to practice these vital skills while in physical isolation and to facilitate non-physical social contact for our teens.
The following are social skills that all children need which can be practised in different ways at home:
Try to facilitate contact with friends using video based technologies but these have their limits for younger children. Littlies will need a lot of direction and perhaps setting up a shared activity like Play-doh so they can play ‘alongside’ each other. Older children can manage better with this form of contact. Teens may need more latitude in their access to the various platforms via which they can make contact with their peers.
Let’s hope our physical isolation will let up a bit soon and make the most of the time we have for family togetherness.
April 10th, 2020
The Coronavirus crisis is forcing every one of us to adapt, to pivot and to accommodate new norms. We are all dealing with challenges and there will be days when we are responding calmly and with compassion and humour and other days when we feel anxious, angry or despairing and our responses then may include snapping at our loved ones, micro-managing our families or retreating to our beds. We may be surprised by our responses.
What are you learning about yourself? There may be huge opportunity for growth here. The disease and the necessary limitations imposed in order to limit its spread may provide a real opportunity for us to develop self-awareness in a way we haven’t encountered before.
Stress testing is a term that is used both in the medical world and in engineering and it involves putting stress on the heart, or a piece of concrete, to see how it performs when challenged. A cardiogram is performed to see what the real state of your heart and blood vessels is and to reveal potential weaknesses that may not show up in ordinary life. We’re being stress tested right now and it may reveal the true state of our emotional health. As with the results of an ECG this gives us a chance to take action about our mental health.
We’re being confronted with our emotions more than ever before. This is an opportunity to examine how I am dealing with my feelings –do I reach for alcohol to numb or TV to distract or do I plough into work or exercise furiously? Am I rowing with my partner and snapping at my children? Has my response to this crisis been to reach out to others or to retire inwards? Do I feel as if there’s nothing I can do or can I see that I am doing something just by staying at home. Do I feel I have to do everything myself or am I relying more on others? Am I prepared to ask for help when I need it?
For myself I found that when the crisis really took hold in Europe and I became aware of how wide-ranging the issue was I was filled with anxiety, not for myself particularly because I am not in any of the categories that we were being advised were vulnerable to the virus, and I thought I might be able to weather the storm financially, but for the world generally. I was filled with sadness which then became despair and I felt real bone-aching tiredness. Then I found there were things I needed to do for my business and for our clients whom I could support. Once I started feeling as if I could be useful I found a new sense of purpose and less hopelessness.
Pay attention to whatever feelings come up for you –be curious about them. Curiosity leads to compassion. There’s been a lot of judgment in mainstream and social media about people who engaged in panic-buying and those who don’t seem to be observing social distancing. It’s been characterised as selfishness but maybe there is fear behind those actions. As parents we need to think about why our children behave in ways that aren’t acceptable and we can model that non-judgmental, curious approach when considering the behaviour of strangers too. People who have experienced past hurt have fear built into their systems and that fear response gets triggered easily. Their response in the present reflects their past experience (which may be hidden even from themselves). When we don’t know what’s triggering us we tend not to be as flexible in our responses.
A great gift we can give our children is self-awareness and self-compassion. When we are conscious of what we are feeling and we learn to tolerate those feelings we can manage our responses better. If we can sit with our own feelings we can respond effectively to our children’s feelings.
Parental stress has a huge impact on children so the best thing we can do for our kids is to take care of ourselves. I know it’s difficult if you are working from home and looking after kids at the same time but think of the time you’re saving by not commuting! Build some time for yourself into your day even if it’s only half an hour in the bath with music and candles.
My advice would be to talk to your children about your own feelings, and the steps you’re taking to deal with them. I’m tense –I need time to listen to some calming music. Acknowledge vulnerability but don’t make it the child’s problem. When we explain to our children how we are feeling it helps them to understand us and themselves. It makes it less likely that they will make our response be their fault. Otherwise they feel the tension in the air and they make it mean they are wrong. You can say: I’d love to spend time with you but I have to make a work call in 20 minutes. Can we play a quick game of table tennis? That would really help me be calm. That helps the child not to feel wrong but also to feel they can make a contribution.
As well as discovering our internal emotional world what else are we learning?
What internal resources am I finding in myself? Am I actually stronger than I think? Have I got through days of home schooling and achieved something that is in fact good enough? Have l mediated between squabbling siblings, got kids to bed more or less on time and put food on the table? Have I done all this with no preparation but just rose to the occasion because it was required of me?
You’re probably discovering what’s really important to you as so many things have been taken away. Have you found you didn’t really miss some of the things you did regularly, like clothes shopping? Have you found that you can communicate perfectly effectively without spending hours in face to face meetings? Have you found you really do miss the freedom to move about and take in fresh air? Do you miss the gym or has Jo Wickes taken over for life?
You are probably clarifying what and who you value and respect. Is it the Instagram influencers or the people in high status (well paid) jobs or is it the health workers and teachers, the shelf-stackers and truck drivers? Are you finding you really value principles like courage, altruism, solidarity, a sense of community and resourcefulness?
What values would you like your child to take on as a result of this crisis? We can be having meaningful conversations with our children and pointing out to them the examples of admirable behaviour that we see. You might even ask your children what changes they would like to see in the world after Covid-19 has gone away.
March 29th, 2020
A guest blog by Elizabeth Fletcher, Director at the Family law in Partnership; she has a particular specialism in resolving children issues. www.flip.co.uk
The Family Law in Partnershop and The Parent Practice co-present our 3 part workshop 'Parenting After Parting'.
Whilst all parents are struggling with the new reality of life with the Coronavirus pandemic, those who are separated parents with children moving between two households face particular complications in managing their child’s day to day life. As a headline point, parents should know that the government and specifically the courts know this and are sympathetic to the challenges. It is for this reason that specific guidance has been introduced.
Separated parents have often worked hard, sometimes in spite of acrimony, to achieve a good arrangement that enables their child/ren to spend time with both of their parents. Some of those arrangements will have required court input and may have taken months or even years to achieve. They can be fragile arrangements which require a great deal of commitment on all sides to maintain. Sometimes, one or both parents can feel like they lose out and this can lead to further feelings of anger or resentment.
In such circumstances, a government instruction to stay at home and not to see anyone outside your household for an (as yet) unspecified period of time, can put a further strain on parents and children alike. The government identified early on that its instruction to stay at home would not work well for the children of separated parents and provided an exception that children of separated parents may move between households. Unfortunately, this was clumsily communicated and led to some misinformation.
The President of the Family Division has now issued guidance on the matter which can be found here. https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/coronavirus-crisis-guidance-on-compliance-with-family-court-child-arrangement-orders/
Essentially, the Court has said “be sensible”. Parents are still in charge and they must as always act in the best interests of their child. Therefore, while a child may move between households, they don’t have to. If parents consider that their particular circumstances, given the risk of infection and the presence of any vulnerable individuals in either of their two homes, means that it would not be safe for their child to move between two homes, then they should not do so.
The President rightly states “More generally, the best way to deal with these difficult times will be for parents to communicate with one another about their worries, and what they think would be a good, practical solution. Many people are very worried about Coronavirus and the health of themselves, their children and their extended family. Even if some parents think it is safe for contact to take place, it might be entirely reasonable for the other parent to be genuinely worried about this.”
The court has said in clear terms – Keep communicating! If this is tough to do directly, then use technology to help you. Explore the advice that the Parent Practice has to offer to help you too. The government and scientific advice seems to be at the moment that this could be a marathon not a sprint so trying to keep good channels of communication open now will help down the line.
So where parents can agree, a court order can be varied for the period of the Coronavirus. The best way to confirm any new temporary arrangement is in writing – a text or email is sufficient.
If the parents cannot agree, then the parent who considers the contact unsafe must propose some other form of safer, temporary contact such as a video call. If parents can manage it, they should provide this generously to help make up for the loss of face to face contact. If the other parent subsequently brings this back to the Family Court in the future, then the court will consider what was the sensible course of action at the time in light of the government guidance to Stay at Home and whether the parent with whom the child resides enabled as much phone/email/video contact as they could to support the child’s relationship with the other parent.
So in summary, if your child normally moves between two homes, think about the following:-
These are difficult situations to resolve, but by keeping the channels of communication open, parents can support their children through this difficult time as well as continuing to facilitate relationships with the other parent.
If you need any further information on this, please contact Elizabeth Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org
March 24th, 2020
You think it’s dangerous out there? What about at home? Being cooped up with your family for extended periods. What could possibly go wrong?
All of us are experiencing change at a very rapid rate which can really throw us out of wack. Some of us will adjust faster than others. You may have a child who doesn’t adjust easily even at the best of times. That’s the one who struggles getting up in the morning (and going to bed at night) has trouble going into school, moving from one place or activity (or person) to another and who doesn’t like surprises. Well surprise, surprise, school’s out early and we’re all going to be at home for …we don’t know how long. Your child might think this is great ….for the first 24 hours!
There may be tears and tantrums and general lack of cooperation… and then there’s the kids. We need to be understanding of that in all of us, ourselves and our children. On top of our worries about the health of our loved ones there is much disappointment about the loss of things we now can’t do, and for us, overwhelm at the thought of managing children and partner at home, home-schooling and doing our own work.
All of these feelings are valid and need to be acknowledged. It will not work to tell anyone not to worry or be upset. Don’t say everyone’s in the same boat; you just have to get on with it. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to keep all your plates spinning at once. If you recognise that you are angry and accept that that is a valid response to the situation you are less likely to take your anger out on your child or partner/sibling/cat. Processing the feelings allows space for your higher order thinking brain to take charge and work out how to cope.
There is no manual for how to manage self-isolation well. We are all new to this and all families are different. But we know that to not only survive, but thrive, in this time of incarceration the adults will need to do a lot of planning. But not just the adults. Everything will work better if you get input from your children, at least the over 3 year olds. I recommend you call an Extraordinary General Meeting of the family. Depending on your children’s ages you might send out an invitation like the one here. (Thank you Victoria). Do provide super snacks.
Before you embark on elaborate timetables for your home-schooling and enriching activities take a reality check. If you are working from home you will not be able to get as much work done as usual. You will have to prioritise sleep if you are to keep well and keep your cool so you cannot work all through the night and work with the kids during the day. People get very weird after only four hours of sleep. School may have set tasks for the children or, if not, there are many, many educational opportunities available online with social media bursting with ideas.
If school has set online activities you may need to share devices. All of this will need timetabling and you may need to communicate with school about what is realistic for your family. Be nice! They’re feeling their way too. They will be adjusting their expectations about what’s possible just now.
Set your kids up to do their work by using a chat through beforehand. No matter what age it works to ask your child sufficiently detailed questions about the task at hand to establish that they know what to do (or if there are any missing areas of knowledge) before they pick up a pencil/keyboard. Then let them get on with it. Depending on levels of independence it might be a good idea to work alongside them, dropping in the occasional dollop of descriptive praise for concentration or effort. Then when they’re finished or reach a break point (previously agreed) get them to look at their work and find at least one thing to improve. I wouldn’t review the finished product but if you do keep your feedback positive.
Make sure your timetables include some downtime, some outside time, some exercise and some family time. This is the time to pull out the board games and play together or watch movies as a family. Perhaps more screentime than usual might be ok now –there’s plenty of good quality material available on a screen. Check out www.commonsensemedia.org or www.PEGI.info for ratings and reviews. The family that plays together stays sane.
March 22nd, 2020
That was Charlie, aged 5, on finding out that his friend’s party had been cancelled. Of course he was disappointed and at age 5 it is hard to understand why you can no longer do the things you want to do. Many adults share that feeling of disappointment as birthdays, weddings and holidays have been cancelled. We all wish ‘this virus thing’ wasn’t happening. But we’re the grownups and we have to deal with what is happening and we’d like our children to see us dealing with it in a calm way. Will we be able to look back on this time and feel proud of how we responded?
I racked my brains this week to think of tips that I could share with you all for making SHWK (Staying Home With Kids) easier. And I definitely will share the life hacks I think of and can pass on from other parents doing the same thing. But my experience is that parents are extraordinarily creative individuals. They know their children best and are able to come up with amazing solutions to quite complex and challenging situations…if they’ve got the headspace. And that means freeing up brain bandwidth for rational thought by allowing ourselves to process how we feel about it.
Every single one of us is dealing with a really challenging situation. Even if we stay well we will be impacted. At one end of the scale we may not be able to get toilet paper and at the other end we may have to close a business and lay off loyal staff. We may have to work from home and look after children at the same time. We may have to juggle care of elderly relatives as well. We may be health workers who are exposed to a much higher degree. All of that will bring with it anxieties and disappointments and frustrations, and perhaps feeling not up to the task.
If we’re going to find creative solutions to our problems we need to first address the feelings. This is what we need to teach our children to do and we have to model it ourselves too. We know from research using fMRI scans that when people try to suppress feelings their emotions are still occupying space in the brain. That research showed that naming the feeling helped to dissipate it. We also know that our brain needs to satisfy basic feelings of safety before it can even move on to higher order emotions, let alone rational thought and our sense of security is threatened at the moment.
So what are you or your children disappointed about this week? What have you had to miss out on –seeing friends at school or your usual yoga class? What has frustrated you or them? Not being able to get cereal or tissues or….? Your neighbours being even noisier now they’re all at home? What’s making you anxious? Worries about your finances or whether your child will fall behind in school? Sit down and talk to them about some of these feelings. This is not a negative moan-fest but it is a necessary airing of emotions to allow you to move through them. It will also give your children permission to express how they are feeling, which will in fact help the feeling to dissipate. See our blog on Talking to kids about Coronavirus and listen to our podcast for how to temper your anxiety so that you don’t make them more worried. One way to keep anxiety in check is to mention the good things that are going on too. One mum undertook to report one item of good news everyday for her son. eg cleaner canals in Venice and special hospitals in China closing because life is returning to normal there.
Then discuss how you are all going to deal with your feelings. Are you going to:
You may come up with other ideas.
Let everyone choose their favourite stress-buster and revisit this strategy frequently. Talk about it when you are choosing to deal with your feelings constructively. Yes, you will feel a bit strange. “I’m feeling a bit frustrated that Papa and Nana’s 40th anniversary party has had to be cancelled. I’m so disappointed because we’ve been planning it for so long. I’m going to let off steam by hoovering the living room. Can everyone give me a bit of space?”
Involve the children in coming up with solutions even if it’s not directly their problem. They are very creative and will feel a bit more in control if they can contribute to answers. “I’m disappointed we can’t go to Manchester to see Bella in her play. She’s been rehearsing for so long and I was looking forward to it. I wonder if Uncle Ben will be able to get a recording of it?” Child: Shall we face time them after it’s finished? We could even send her flowers like we did when Auntie Jo was sick. Bella will feel like a proper actor then!”
You may have to let go of some expectations as these thoughts about what should happen, how things should be or how children (and adults) should behave are the source of the feelings that then cause us to respond poorly. Don’t expect the first week of SHWK to be smooth…or even the second. Don’t expect to be your children’s teacher. As one school principal in the US put it: This is not home-schooling. This is an unprecedented emergency situation impacting the whole world. Home –schooling is a choice that you consider and plan for where you are your child’s school teacher. This is at best distance learning.
You may have seen the video that went viral of the mum ranting about her child’s e-learning burden and her feeling of inadequacy in keeping her children on top of the workload. Well ditch those expectations of yourself and your children and the in fact the school. They’re finding their feet in this new situation too.
Most of all ditch the expectation of being perfect. These are very imperfect times so we imperfect humans are just right for the job. We have shown ourselves over millennia to be adaptable so we will rise to the task…next week.
March 16th, 2020
With new information about the Coronavirus and the exponential spread of the disease arriving in our mailboxes and social media platforms and in print and broadcast media practically on the hour you may be reaching Coronavirus saturation point. Or because of the high level of uncertainty about this novel situation you may be relentlessly consuming as much information as you can. It’s normal to feel anxious about uncertain situations and this is a quite unprecedented pandemic.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Ali Binns, in her excellent article How to cope with anxiety about Coronavirus, explores the differing responses we are all having to the virus. Some of us are feeling very panicked and are rushing out to stockpile basic goods, avoiding gatherings and pulling our children out of school. While others are shrugging their shoulders and saying it’s just flu and carrying on as normal with the risk that they are not taking the steps they could to prevent the spread of the disease. Binns talks about a more measured response which shows concern but keeps the anxiety in check. This allows us to be prepared and to focus on what we can do to help ourselves and our families and neighbours.
There is a real possibility that families might find themselves in self-isolation or the children might be sent home from school or daycare for a short period or for much longer. The Easter school holiday break may be longer than originally planned but any plans you had to go away may no longer be possible. So you might find yourself in the company of your children for extended periods. How you prepare for this may make the difference between seeing this as a real nightmare or as an unexpected gift of quality time with your children.
If you are trying to work from home because of the virus and your children are home too that adds a whole new layer of difficulty of course. Working parents will be aware that the minute you open your laptop is usually the time your child has an urgent need. (Remember that BBC interview with Korea expert Dr Robert Kelly which was interrupted by his kids?) If there are two parents working from home one solution is to take turns in caring for younger children so at least you both get some work done during business hours and then recognise that you are going to be working the graveyard shift.
If your children are older there are a number of things you can do to make things go more smoothly. With great thanks to our clients (including Chloe who has been home with her 5, 10 and 12 year old for over a month in a small flat in Hong Kong) here are some ideas about how to manage this time… without completely overdosing on screens.
Stay calm and keep washing your hands!
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