You may or may not know that this week (1st-5th February) is ‘Children’s Mental Health Week’.
Never has it been a more important time to discuss this topic. As I write this, the UK is in lockdown, children are at home learning for the second time in less than a year, and yesterday we found out that the government will not be allowing schools to open until 8th March at the earliest.
As parents and carers I know and understand the pressures we are all under, juggling schoolwork, our own work and commitments and carrying worry about the impact this is going to have on our children.
We know that children’s mental health is suffering. I am seeing this first hand. Anxiety levels are rising, worries about schoolwork, exams or not being able to ‘do’ or understand the work they are set or see their friends is all having an impact on them, even if they are not outwardly showing it.
Children of any age won’t learn when they are anxious, stressed or overwhelmed, much as we struggle to motivate ourselves and get stuff done when we are feeling the same.
So, what can we do as parents, carers or educators who want to place our children’s well-being at the forefront of everyday life?
I am going to share five ways we can support our children’s mental health during this challenging time.
Get them moving.
You may have reluctant outdoor exercisers and getting them out of the house is a mission in itself, but the importance of movement, any movement is becoming more apparent.
Children are used to walking to and from school, walking around between lessons and outside during breaks and lunch. Now it is likely they get up and sit down at a table or in front of a computer without having taken more than a few steps.
Not only is this an issue for their physical body, but it is also an issue for their mind, Maria Montessori (founder of Montessori Nurseries and a leader in exploring the mind body connection link) shares;
“Movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth”
The Secrets of Childhood by Maria Montessori
Not only does it help our children learn and explore the world around them, but it also releases important positive brain chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins which help us to feel better, more uplifted, and as a natural consequence, more motivated.
If you child or teen is resisting going outside, putting music on and dancing round the living room for five minutes, challenging them to do some Joe Wicks for as little as ten minutes before the inevitable screen time request can make a massive and noticeable difference.
Find some time to connect.
I know our routines and structures have been turned upside down with the children being at home all day and the inevitable juggling which ensues. It also means that space for you is limited and this can lead to your own physical and mental exhaustion. Us humans are social beings, and to be without the connections we are used to is tough on us all.
One of the most useful pieces of guidance which was ever given to me about parenting related to finding times in the day to connect with our children (whatever age) which doesn’t need additional effort. Times which can be slotted in when and where possible. An example of this is having dinner together sitting round a table without screens or other devices. You might not be happy chatty but just the physical presence of others can make a massive difference to mind and mood.
Sitting down with your children to watch their favourite program on TV can be a positive connection time, without needing to find out how they are. Sometimes things come up in programmes which you can chat about, even if it is ‘Peppa Pig’ on repeat!
Your children or teens might find themselves too ‘old’ for bedtime stories but going in to say goodnight and see them before they go to sleep can also be invaluable. Even if they say they don’t want you to, sometimes just a quick check in can make all the difference. Your reassuring presence can really help them. Even having a 5 minute cuppa with your older child can provide an opportunity for connection.
Please don’t expect a raft of talking and emotional offloading though. Some children will, but most won’t as they will not always be able to make sense of their emotions and feelings. You will comfort them just by being there without any other distractions, and to do this as often as possible is enough.
Limit their screen time.
I know that this is the one suggestion which meets with the most resistance. From children because they need and want to connect with their friends and have ‘downtime’ and from parents because there is so little for them to do and the children are bored both of being at home and maybe being in our company…..yes, it happens.
Research from the Education Policy Institute found that heavy social media use was linked to negative well-being and self esteem and whilst your child may be too young to be using social media, the so called ‘entertainment’ apps and online gaming can also have a negative effect on our children’s behaviour and motivation when used for long, uninterrupted periods of time.
I am not advocating a complete absence of screen time for our children (I’m a parent too). Research has indicated that online connection with friends can be incredibly beneficial, a balance with how much time and when is what is important to consider, especially when use into the evening can impact on sleep and therefore mood and energy levels the following day.
One thing I have found helpful is allowing my youngest to video chat with two of his friends during the school day when they have lessons together. Although I had my reservations to start with, I have noticed how much more motivated he is. I have overheard them solving problems together and helping each other even though there is the inevitable drifting off task at times. The benefits of him doing this for his own well-being outweigh the potential distractions.
Celebrate the small stuff.
Right now, there are times when we feel there is little to be positive about. However, recognising small things in your child’s day which they have achieved, persevered with, or done themselves are worth recognising in spades. The other day we received a letter from our oldest sons’ school, addressed to us, letting us know how impressed they were with his hard work, effort, and ability to adapt to online learning, despite the challenging circumstances, and asking us to share this with him. When I did show him the letter, the fleeting smile on his 15-year-old face gave me everything I needed to see. It was read, absorbed and understood and it helped me to remember that the smaller the positive highlights, and the more consistently we do them, can make a massive difference to our children’s day. We can never praise them often enough in tangible ways that help them see their value and self-worth.
Find the activities they do enjoy and maximise them!
How many times are you faced with a child who says ‘I’m bored’ usually in response to not having screen time because you are trying to do the right thing in giving them screen breaks! This is the time to help them to explore things they would not normally have time to do. Yes, it might mean you end up doing it with them, but cooking, baking, drawing or even making videos or creations together can support our young people to have some much-needed connection time with others when they can’t have it with their friends, and obtain a sense of achievement from doing so.
One of my young clients during his session with me decided to cook the evening meal for his family because he loved to cook simple meals and enjoyed expanding his skills. This was in response to exploring ways he could build his confidence. He also recognised how his mum would love him to do this as she wouldn’t have to cook for once plus, he would have the reward of seeing his whole family enjoy a meal he had cooked.
Another family activity involves cleaning the house, together. We did this the other weekend and again despite initial resistance, doing it together meant it got done, the children had a sense of achievement from completing it, plus there was one less chore that us as parents had to do. Children love to feel useful, and contributing towards household tasks, especially during a time like this can be invaluable.
With all these things we need to be prepared for the inevitable resistance, challenges and arguments, especially if our children do not want to do what is requested of them. In these cases, you are still the parent, and even though it feels hard work and the path of least resistance would be to let them do what they want, you will reap rewards in trying to help them take some positive steps, knowing that it will support their mental health.
Children are reactive beings and therefore will not see what they need, they will want what they want, and will often react if they don’t get it. Parenting in a pandemic is the toughest thing, keeping motivated and uplifted ourselves a constant challenge, but incorporating small things into our day to boost our children’s mental health with have huge, and tangible benefits in the long run.
If you feel the need for additional support and guidance to help you and your children manage their mental health, feel free to find out more and get in touch by visiting my website www.clarecogan.com or email [email protected].
You are not alone.