A parent asked me recently, what to do about their child, who has become anxious and clingy since lockdown measures began. I have noticed an increase in anxiety in adults too, not just in children, so I have put together twelve ways to lower your child’s anxiety levels and bring calm to your family.
IT ALL CHANGED WITH LOCKDOWN
Everything changed, seemingly overnight. It was like watching a slow-motion accident: We could see it coming and had a vague idea of what was happening but we were still unprepared. Lockdown became a reality.
CHILDREN DEPEND ON THEIR ADULTS TO FEEL OK
Children begin life fully dependent upon the adults who look after them, to get their needs met. To feel safe, to feel belonging and to feel significant in some way or another.
How do they feel safe? When things are predictable; through a routine. When the adults are showing them that they are safe, by being confident and competent. When the children have their family and friends around them and they feel they have people who look out for them and understand them.
Their sense of safety has been shaken. This is made worse by hearing the adults talking about all the concerns they have, to family members, to friends, in the house, on the phone, via video calls. (This is in no way a judgement, but an observation of what the kids may experience).
THE NEW ‘NOT-NORMAL’
Children’s routines have changed. They are perhaps no longer at school or day-care, instead, they are at home. That should be good, right? But it’s not normal! On top of that, they are still supposed to be doing schoolwork but without the teacher, school routine and familiar environment where schoolwork happens.
They can’t be with their friends. Since they were small, they have probably been encouraged to play with other small people. They have formed bonds of friendship which are hugely important to them and that give them a sense of belonging outside of their family grouping. They are missing that connection.
With all the attention being paid to the new situation and circumstances, the small people are probably not feeling noticed. Adults’ attention is focused on other things and not on the little ones. Their behaviour will change according to how they feel and because they have unmet needs.
THE LINK BETWEEN ANXIETY AND UNMET NEEDS
When adults lose our sense of security and safety, fear that we don’t belong and no longer feel as if we have worth, we get discouraged and uncertain of our place in our world. This is when anxiety creeps in. How does our behaviour change? We have only to look at our reactions since the Coronavirus has been in the world to see evidence of that.
Imagine what these changes mean for a child. Because of their dependency on adults for survival, their anxiety is heightened. Their needs will be more urgent and will result in (perhaps) uncharacteristic behaviours, to try and meet those needs. So you will see your children showing behaviour that seems more extreme than usual, or getting irritable or whiny or clingy, or fighting with their siblings. Anything that gets your attention. Even if it’s a negative reaction, it proves you know they’re there.
A PLAN FOR REDUCING ANXIETY
The most effective way of helping your children feel less anxious is to help them, first, to feel safe and secure, second to know that they belong and are connected in the family and with friends. Third, helping them to realise that they matter to you will make a huge difference to the behaviours and to their general demeanour. So have a look at the twelve ways to lower anxiety levels and see what might work for your children.
There may be a little push-back, of course, just to test your resolve. Persevere. You will see results. Consistency will pay off.
SAFETY AND SECURITY
- Routine – Having predictable things happening at predictable times can feel reassuring. Getting up and going to bed routines are great for calming and settling.
- Timetable – Just like ‘normal’ school time, everything revolves around a timetable. This helps kids mentally prepare for what comes next, giving them a sense of certainty and control. Involving the kids in building a timetable could help that sense of control.
- Limit Coronavirus news – This one is helpful for adults too! Keeping the children’s exposure to all the drama and alarm of news (and just as importantly, discussions at home), can be helpful too. It’s not trivialising or ignoring but making a conscious choice about how ‘in your face’ it’s allowed to be.
- Honesty – This is a hard one sometimes. We want to shelter them from worry and perhaps when they ask questions about death and health worries, especially connected to family and friends, we don’t want to scare them. However, kids are often savvier than we give them credit for. They can tell when we are not honouring them with the truth. We don’t have to overwhelm them. Just let them ask questions and answer where you can. If you don’t know, it’s ok to say so. You could go to the internet together in search of an answer. Remember to always choose reputable websites to search for those answers.
- Being noticed is important – It might mean a quick check-in, a passing pat on a shoulder, a tousled head on the way by. Asking if they are doing ok with their schoolwork or how they slept last night. For small people, being paid attention lets them know they belong.
- Helping them connect with family members – It could help re-establish their sense of where they fit in the social group.
- Keeping in touch with their friends – It may be a little more difficult, logistically especially with younger children, but if they see their best friend on video chat, it might be reassuring. Of course, the use of video messaging and other technology will need close help and monitoring by the grown-ups, to maintain internet safety.
- Have small amounts of time with each child – it may be challenging with schedules and other kids, but even a short story sometime in the timetable you’ve made together could make all the difference to feeling loved and connected.
- Take time to actively listen to them – hear their fears and worries. Rather than saying “don’t worry, everything will be ok” or “don’t be scared” or “don’t be sad”, show empathy, validate their feelings and take those fears seriously. This is where honesty can help more than empty reassurances.
- A genuine request for help with the chores – may actually be a great way of increasing someone’s sense of significance. I know! It sounds mad!
- Helping others in the household – (age-appropriate of course), being shown how to do new things and then trusted to do that thing for you, can help immensely. Even if mistakes are made, if you are able to notice what has gone well and ask what can be improved, rather than pointing out faults and shortcomings, Your child will see how they make a contribution to the family.
- Noticing small progress – acknowledging helpful actions, asking if they need help instead of jumping in to fix and thanking them for their help can be enormously encouraging.
A SENSE OF CONNECTION, CONTROL AND WORTH
The things listed are suggestions only. You may well have other ways in which you can help your children.It needn’t be a massive change. In fact I would not recommend that, for your own sanity!
Consider what you know about your kids. One thing might work much better with one child and not at all with another. Find one thing that works for each and do that consistently. Let yourselves, you and your children, settle into that one small space of safety, belonging or significance and magic will happen.
Remember. You are a good parent. You are.