On a walk last week, my eight-year-old daughter Clemency picked a dandelion head and blew the seeds to make a wish. That night, she told me wishes didn’t come true. I asked why. “I wished that coronavirus would go away, and it hasn’t,” she told me forlornly.
All of our children have had their lives turned upside down.
A recent survey of 1,854 people run by the UK charity Young Minds found that 67 per cent of parents were concerned about the long-term impact of the virus on their child’s mental health.
As a trainee child psychotherapist, as well as a broadcaster and a mother of two – my second child, Wilbur, is five – I have spoken to a number of distressed parents of young children displaying worrying behaviours since lockdown started. Their stories convince me that most children would benefit from seeing their friends again, enjoying the fun, joy and routine that school can provide.
Parents’ mental health is also at stake. When I read stories about the success of home working, I wonder how many working parents with children under 10, would agree. I personally know parents who are experiencing phenomenal stress as they try to work and home-school, most pushing on in stoic silence, but for how much longer? Many now openly confess to feelings of acute overwhelm. “I’m drowning,” they tell me, or “I’m literally on my knees”.
One father, living with the threat of redundancy, told me of the guilt he felt at how close he had come to using physical discipline on his daughters, aged four and six. “I’ve never smacked my children, but I’ve come close twice now trying to home school. I can’t go on.”
For the mother of a five-year-old girl, it’s her daughter’s behaviour that troubles her. “She is normally an extroverted, high-spirited little girl who loves the routine and structure of school,” she tells me.
“She has been severely affected by the restrictions, and has developed some worrying behaviour, most notably the desire to hurt herself by hitting her head against the wall, repetitive speech patterns and trying to punch herself in the face, as well as kicking and biting us.”
Stress sits in our children’s bodies, as well as in their heads, their stress hormones affecting their mood, sleep, how they learn and their behaviour in the classroom. It will affect their physical health, too.
When children do return to school, teachers may also be faced with more aggressive or boisterous behaviour, behaviour that would have been unacceptable before lockdown. As Dame Benita Refson, founder and president of children’s mental health charity Place2Be, says: “We need to think about how to support teachers, as well as parents, with their own feelings of vulnerability and stresses.”
In the early days of lockdown, my husband and I determined to be as open with our children (in an age-appropriate way) as we could be. We wanted them to feel informed but not fearful. But I still noticed more aggression in my son’s make-believe games and both children wanted more rough and tumble play with me – both typical signs of children releasing anxiety and stress they might otherwise have held on to.
They asked me for more “sandplay”, too, something I’ve learnt about in my training. Sandplay aims to tap into a child’s subconscious, enabling them to use metaphors to express what they are really thinking. When I asked my children which animals they wanted to play with, both said: “Big scary monsters.” For my son, there were many scenes of fighting, with one monster wanting to kill the other.
It may be troubling to hear our children express themselves in this way, or to see them being more physical than usual, but these are, in fact, normal behaviours – or, as I would put it, normal in response to abnormal circumstances. Children may be desperate to feel a level of control in a world where none of us have known the outcome. One mother, a psychiatrist working in offender mental health, has two daughters, aged seven and four. The oldest is on the autism spectrum. Her husband runs his own business. As a unilateral key worker family, they send their children to school two days a week, bowing to pressure they have felt to keep them at home when possible.
But school is where her elder daughter can feel in control. “Her wellbeing depends on consistency, routine, familiar care-givers and social skills support,” says her mother. “When at home, she needs familiarity and wants to be with me, but this is impossible at times. How do you explain to a seven-year-old why she cannot walk into the room in her pants while her mother is on a video-conference call?
“My younger child is physically demanding, seeking near-constant human contact while also becoming increasingly irritable, emotionally distressed and violent. She craves human interaction and does not understand why we cannot provide this on demand. Meanwhile, school has become unrecognisable for her – none of her friends or usual teachers, little structure and no teaching.” For every working-from-home parent who finds their children a source of stress, the child may well be experiencing stress, too. One father found a note pinned to his home-office door. “Daddy, please stop working and come and play,” it read.
When we are physically present but not available emotionally, it can feel like rejection to our children. One way to mitigate this, and I admit it’s a big ask, is to take 20 minutes out of each day to sit quietly with our children. I call it “special time”, telling my kids they are completely in charge, and I will do whatever they ask (even if it’s talking about killing other monsters!). If we do that, we can give them some of the control they currently crave.
Sitting with them, just offering general observations – “Wow, I can see the lion is sitting very close to the elephant” – and they’ll take comfort in sensing you are really there with them. We don’t have to be therapists to be therapeutic.
With my children, I’ve been using silly voices and telling them stories of how little people overcome big monsters, ideally making them laugh and empowering them. Humour is a great release for children, so anything silly and fun can help make a tough situation feel less scary for them and how we behave now, modelling calm, in-control behaviour, will help them deal with stress in years to come.
This can come in the simple things we do together, a picnic or curling up on the sofa, their stress systems syncing with our own, generating that atavistic feeling of being secure and held. There is a proven chemistry to hugs.
So if you have children, remember the best thing you can do is see them, hear them and offer as many cuddles as you can. It might lower your own stress levels, too.
The Sunday Telegraph