The Covid-19 pandemic has swept through our homes and lives as a great invisible force, turning much of what we know upside down. As a therapist and early childhood teacher working with children on a daily basis, I am becoming more and more aware of both the obvious and the subtle ways our children are affected.
How are children affected?
Research indicates that children are much more vulnerable than adults to traumatic events disrupting their daily lives. And daily life has changed significantly for little ones during the Covid-19 outbreak, and the consequent lockdown situation multiple countries are facing.
Children’s routines, structure and predictability has been upended – all the things that provide them with a sense of security. They are not going to school, not seeing their friends or participating in their usual extra-mural activities; they are not seeing loved ones they were used to spending time with, and not going anywhere. And no-one can tell them exactly when this will come to an end. They are actively grieving for the way life used to be in so many ways. Granted, this is not the same kind of grief as grieving the loss of a loved one, but they are experiencing some great losses nonetheless.
Developmentally, our little ones have not yet been able to build up the boundaries we as adults have, to shield them from the feelings and atmospheres around them; they feel and sense our adult feelings and fears around the situation as well.
How does this grief manifest in little ones?
It is important for adults to understand that this is a completely novel situation for little ones; therefore novel and challenging behaviours are to be expected, as they try to make sense of what is happening, and how to cope with their new situation.
Grief in toddlers and children can manifest as general irritability, anger and frustration, clinginess, regression to baby-ish behaviours, difficulty with sleeping and eating, or simply just a listlessness and less enjoyment of activities they used to love.
What can parents and caregivers do to help?
Now is the time for compassion. For our little ones, and for ourselves. Connection and our loving presence is the best gift we can give our children at this time. Make time for play, and be fully present in it with your little one. Let them take the lead, and have fun with them! Here is a link for some lovely, fun, connection-promoting games: https://chlss.org/blog/15-games-that-encourage-attachment/
Help little ones to cope with big feelings. Reflect your child’s feelings, helping them to name it with compassion and care. Meet all of their feelings with love. When they are in the middle of that tantrum, while you’re trying to juggle an online work meeting and their school work, with a pile of dishes waiting in the sink, it’s going to be extra hard to not meet their anger with your own. Especially now, when we ourselves are taking strain. But take a deep breath, and remember that they are feeling much like you are. Help them to regulate by showing them alternatives for coping, such as deep breathing, taking a minute for themselves in a quiet place, or engaging in an activity to help distract them.
Even though we are in the midst of self-isolation, this does not mean disconnection. Help your little one to still connect with loved ones and friends, be it via telephone conversations, video chats, voice notes, letters or pictures drawn for each other.
Create routines and predictability where possible. Things might not be the same as before, but new routines can be established, and new and wonderful family rituals and traditions can be formed.
Help little ones to tap into their natural resilience by providing them with opportunities to experience mastery and control. Their whole world feels out of control at this point in time. The puzzle you know they can build, or the part of the recipe you know they can help with, can provide them with a sense of self-efficacy and control in a very uncertain time.
Humour is another great tool for tapping into that resilience! A well-timed joke immediately releases feel good hormones, and can diffuse an escalating tantrum, or wheedle a smile out through those tears.
Take care of yourself during this time – we as adults are also grieving, dealing with a truly traumatic situation. Whether it be grief about losses we’ve already experienced, or anxiety and fears about what is to come – we are all taking strain.
As much as we are all trying to make sure we are covering all our bases and taking care of our families, this is not the time to be hard on yourself (actually, I am not sure it is ever helpful to be hard on yourself, but it definitely isn’t now!), or push yourself too hard. I see so many quotes urging us to make use of all this extra time; that we should use it wisely to learn new skills, be productive, or work on ourselves. This is unnecessary pressure in an already pressurised situation.
The wisest way in which we can use this time, is to make sure we take care of our mental health, for this also takes care of our little ones’ mental health in a big way. Make time for yourself, for those small rituals of a cup of tea in the garden, a few minutes of exercising, prayer, meditation or yoga, stress-baking (it’s a thing!), or sneaking away for a quick hour of Netflix in the corner/closet. Whatever it may be that comforts your soul, make time. It’s important.
Lastly, remember that grief is a process and acceptance and adaptation will come. Don’t rush the process, this is the most important part. Let your heart be a guesthouse, and simply let the feelings come and go. This too shall pass.
I leave you with the wise words of poet Jallaludin Rumi:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.