Analysis: there are many things that parents and care-givers can do to help children cope with the current pandemic

While working as a primary school teacher, I was sometimes entrusted with teaching Junior Infants. Guiding a group of children at the beginning of their educational journey always felt like a huge responsibility. However, seeing those same children achieve so many milestones across the year made it a fun and rewarding experience.

In truth, the biggest challenge was always that first day. For some children, the thought of attending "big school" caused significant anxiety. They had no idea what to expect and considered me, the teacher, as a figure whose only purpose was to remove them from their comfortable and safe routine. I was always well prepared and well supported. Together with parents and care-givers, I would quickly establish approaches to help a child cope with their anxiety and soon, school wasn’t such a frightening place.

That said, it’s easy to prepare when you know what’s coming. We have had little time to prepare for the disruption of the coronavirus. It’s a challenging time. Understandably, many of us are anxious and under stress, but we have faced adversity and stresses before as adults. We know that we have adapted and developed resilience from these experiences. Our children will too, but they need our help.

From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr. Colman Noctor on managing anxiety

With schools closed and important restrictions placed on our movements, parents have been tasked with delivering academic content and finding innovative ways to keep children physically active. However, in order for children to access learning and maintain healthy bodies, it is crucial that they first maintain healthy minds. 

An analysis of the Growing up in Ireland study found that the 2008 economic crash had a pronounced impact on the mental health of many Irish children. Indeed, any significant disruptions to a child’s normal life can cause them to experience anxiety. Anxiety has a negative impact on a child’s behaviours and on their relationships with peers and family. It can significantly block a child’s learning, impacting cognitive processes like attention, visual processing and auditory processing. Anxiety can result in loss of appetite and loss of sleep. These are important issues, but there are many things that we as parents and care-givers can do to help children cope.

Monitoring exposure to media

As much as we want to protect children from events around the world, it is not always possible. The media is covering the pandemic intently. When adults watch, listen to or discuss news reports, children are often able to tune in. Then, children talk to one another and share stories.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, clinical child psychologist David Coleman and psychologist Sabina Brennan on dealing with coronavirus anxiety

Monitoring a child’s exposure to media and conversations about media reports is difficult, but it is important. We need to remember that we store and reconcile information as adults in ways that children cannot. If your child is aware of the coronavirus, they may want to talk to you about what they have heard. This may be a tricky conversation to have, but you can simply begin by taking their lead and responding to any questions or concerns that they have in a way that is appropriate to their age and development.

Problem solve and plan

Often adults are compelled to reassure children that "everything is OK" and "there’s nothing to worry about". However, it’s often more important to be truthful rather than reassuring. You can do this in a positive way by inviting your child to problem solve and plan with you. For example, you could problem solve "things we can do to keep our bodies healthy", like getting plenty of sleep, finishing our meals and washing our hands regularly and carefully.

You might also want your child to know that there will be a new routine for a while and empower them to help devise a plan for how everyone can work together in the home. This could include devising a daily schedule that outlines which lessons and activities your child will participate in. It might also include the tasks that you, the parent, need to get through. Why not display this schedule (it does not need to look fancy!) and tick off the activities as you go. For younger children, visual timetables work well. Having everyone on the same page helps us settle into new routines and makes us all feel more in control. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, what are the public's anxieties over the coronavirus?

Monitoring your own mood

Let us revisit that first day of school again. An anxious child, imagining the worst and visibly upset. They look to their parent for comfort, but the parent is also upset. The child thinks "school MUST be a terrible place, if my parent is crying".  

Monitoring your own mood and maintaining a positive outlook across the day is not easy. However, children take cues from their parent’s mood and if they read stress, fear or anxiety they will typically experience the same. In this way, adults can have a direct impact on the emotional and cognitive development of a child. By modelling calmness and positivity, we can protect children from taking on our own fears and anxieties. In return, children can distract us from worrying about the future and force us to stay in the moment.

Stay in the moment

One of the best things we can do to support an anxious child is to help them to stay in the moment and steer them away from imagining the worst. We know children are easily distracted and can spend large amounts of time worrying about the past or predicting the future. Reading or being read to, playing a musical instrument, singing or dancing to music, painting or drawing a picture, building or creating with Lego all promote mindful behaviours. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Gill Stedman speaks to six year olds about the coronavirus and finds out from the Little Medical School how children can help stop the spread of the virus

In schools around the country children are becoming accustomed to practicing more explicit mindfulness exercises. Resources like Mindfulness Matters help children to focus on the present moment by teaching techniques like breath control (eg take one breath in through the nose for the count of 4, and breathe out for the count of 8 through the mouth) and scanning the body (eg pay attention to how the body is feeling and identify the parts that are holding tension). In this way, children become armed with a set of tools to draw upon whenever they feel anxious or stressed across the life course.

There are many mindful exercises to suit children of all ages available online. Why not make mindfulness exercises part of your child’s new routine. You might also enjoy being mindful with them, if only for a few minutes of each day.

Adjusting to change

We have all been forced to make abrupt changes to our lives. Yes, these are challenging times, but it’s important to know that children can and will adjust to change. Moreover, dealing with change affords an opportunity to develop resilience.

There are many factors associated with this pandemic that we cannot control, but what we can control is how we act, react and behave, particularly in front of children. By focusing on positive habits in relation to a healthy body and healthy mind we could emerge on the other side of this as more resilient adults with more resilient children – mentally stronger from this experience.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ