With children going through two lengthy periods of home schooling, prolonged isolation, separation from friends and family and reduced physical activity all in the space of just one year, many believe that they are some of the hardest hit victims of COVID.
What is absolutely certain is that the pandemic’s long-term repercussions will have a real impact on the nations young. 1 in 4 children suffered from mental health problems pre-COVID and those figures are only set to increase as a consequence of the pandemic, particularly with the rising concerns around the level of abuse and neglect many children may have suffered at home during this period.
Sunil Bhopal (an expert in child-health at Newcastle University) said too many people are dismissing the impact the pandemic restrictions are having on children by claiming that they are fundamentally resilient and will bounce back. This, however, is misguided – children are growing up in a world where even “playing with your friends is illegal” and this threatens to cause long lasting damage to many if there isn’t some form of intervention. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the mental health of children and their families have been somewhat forgotten and brushed to one-side during this period.
Many people believe that they have received a message of hopelessness as a result of the expectations put on them by the government, the media and schools. Parents feel like they have failed at parenting during lockdown as they have attempted the impossible task of working from home, being home-school teachers, parents, partners, cooks and cleaners! They worry that their children are “behind” academically and that this will massively impact their future job prospects etc (raising the “lost generation”). Parents of new-borns worry that the lack of baby development classes and interaction with family and friends will have set them back and delayed their social skills developing. Parents come to us filled with worry and desperation over their children’s emotional ups and downs and are reporting huge meltdowns over what would previously have been trivial bumps in the road.
Although a lot of the above is true (especially for those children that were already living in difficult circumstances), this does not mean that all hope is lost. There are so many fantastic resources available within our communities to help and support those effected families as we all try to re-build our post-COVID lives.
Here at The Mindfulness Club, we are one of those resources and we are here to help. Our goal is to remind parents and families that together as a unit they CAN recover, they CAN make a change. With our mindfulness techniques and exercises, families CAN work on helping their children and themselves to learn ways to better cope with their day to day struggles.
One of our favourite sayings is “You aren’t defined by the worst thing that happens to you” (Bryan Stevenson). Life is not just about what happens to you but instead it’s about how you deal with it, how you pick yourself back up, what you learn from it and how it changes you as a person going forward. The key word here is RESILIENCE.
Resilience is technically defined as “the process of positive adaptation to adversity that arises through interactions between children and their environments”.
Sunil Bhopal was right to question the presumption that children are naturally resilient and will just bounce back. Resilience is not a trait we are born with but rather something we learn and develop over time. In normal circumstances, a child would learn resilience by experiencing “protective” events and observing “protective” characteristic traits of their families, teachers and friends. Feeling safe and protected during times of adversity will increase their chances of healthy development despite negative experiences that they may have along the way. But the issue today is that we are not living in “normal” circumstances – we are in the middle of a global pandemic, where children have been isolated from many of the “normal” experiences and “protective” elements that they would have otherwise been exposed to and which would have helped them build and develop resilience, e.g. a wide range of daily experiences and environments, school teachers, friends and families. So does this mean that it is impossible for children to build resilience during this time? NO, but it involves a bit more creativity on the part of parents and caregivers.
For example, what if we changed the narrative that we are being fed and then passing on to our children – could we help our children to focus on the good experiences they have had during home schooling/lockdown? Could we prioritise play and creativity at home as an alternative way to expose children to experiences in which they could build resilience? The answer is, YES we CAN.
Clearly, the reality is that children’s resilience will depend so greatly on the mindset of their parents and caregivers whom they have been with for so much of their time during lockdown
So what can we do? Here are some of our favourite tips that can be easily carried out at home each day:
- Make children feel safe and secure. Only then will they be prepared to seek out new experiences, display independence, believe they can make their own destiny and have a strong internal focus of control – all of which helps build resilience.
- Try to “normalise” the feelings our children are having during lockdown – carve out time, daily or weekly, to have in depth conversations with our children, either during a meal or at bedtime, about how they are feeling. Encourage emotional literacy – how we talk about feelings matters. Let them know that all their feelings are valid: “of course we are bored” – there is not much to do within the limits of lockdown; “of course we are lonely” – we aren’t allowed to see our friends as freely as we would like. Resilience is built by being made to feel that your negative emotions are valid but that they are also just “feelings” and will pass – despite the tough times we will feel better soon enough.
- Regularly utilise affirmations. Affirmations are positive words that you repeat about yourself or your environment in order to help build self-esteem and remind yourself of the positive things in your life e.g. I am strong, I am safe, I am brave etc.
- Focus of gratitude. We always encourage all of the children we work with (either 1-1 or in classroom settings) to take the time to focus on what they are grateful for in their lives. This can be done by creating a simple daily list of things your child may be thankful for that day, or by taking a moment to appreciate triumph. This is a fantastic tool to help children feel moments of joy throughout the day and to highlight the positivity that is all around, despite the difficult times they may be experiencing.
We are currently in the process of setting up a programme of summer holiday “retreat days” across Manchester and Cheshire with the aim of helping children to build self-esteem and resilience. These days will focus on teaching children mindfulness practises through play, yoga, creativity, drawing, art, affirmations and more. We want their summers to be filled with fun and freedom, surrounded by friends, whether they are visiting museums or just rolling around in the grass belly laughing until it hurts with their pals.
The key message I would love all parents to take away from this article is that you are in control of making the narrative you want to share with your children and you CAN make this experience an empowering one for you and your children. All of our classes are based around the ethos of providing children with the superpower of emotional literacy, giving them the tools to understand that difficult things happen and we do have big feelings attached to those hard times (e.g. stress and anger) but that’s normal. We can provide them with the essential mindfulness tools, which can help them deal with those emotions and move on stronger than before. With practice and over time, your child will be able to learn that they can get through difficult times and hence become more resilient. Believe in your child and give them the emotional superpower of mindfulness.