Every parent is worried right now and the anxiety you are feeling is being driven by situational and circumstantial distress caused by the coronavirus and that is normal.
The coronavirus is global, nasty and life-threatening, so naturally the brain’s amygdala is triggered. As many normal things in life are being changed, lost or cancelled suddenly and unexpectedly, we need to appreciate that this is our brain working as it is designed to work, in order to ensure our survival.
So many parents have been reaching out deeply frightened and worried and I have been validating why it is perfectly normal to feel this heightened level of stress.
Just when we thought the bushfire crisis had passed…
Our nervous systems are still in overload after the catastrophic Australian bushfire season, which actually impacted the whole world! The scale and duration of the bushfires was unprecedented, and triggered our survival instincts as we perceived (or lived) the threat to our lives – and the sign that our world was in trouble. Many communities are still recovering and I can only imagine how extra challenging this new threat must be for them.
Many Australians scattered around the country had already been impacted by a serious and long, debilitating drought before the fires. And then, on top of that, the cyclone season brought massive rainfall, enormous hail and floods immediately after!
No wonder we have all been so quick to become incredibly stressed and anxious by the threat of coronavirus. Our nervous system takes many months and sometimes even longer to finally settle after a major adverse trauma – and for us right now, the traumas keep coming.
To be honest many of you will be experiencing a form of grief. Our world as we knew it has fallen apart. If you are experiencing tears and irrational anger – be gentle with yourself, we need to grieve when a significant loss occurs. This is normal, not a sign of weakness.
We are also grieving for those who have lost loved ones around the world because we are humans. I am missing seeing my precious grandchildren scattered over Australia and, yes, Skype and Facetime are great, but nothing beats a real Nanny hug and I so miss the smell of them.
The endless commentary, especially in the media and on socials by people with no expertise, has added to the sense of threat.
This has created panic… and as social beings we’re influenced by the behaviour of others. It’s called ‘emotional contagion’ – it means we’re influenced by the emotions of others … hence the lack of toilet paper and pasta!
I talked a bit more about this in a bonus episode of the Parental As Anything podcast that we pulled together last week. Please take a listen:
So our first big job, after understanding why we are struggling, is to know that our children are responding to how we are responding, regardless of what we are actually saying. Children can read body language and energy. Every child and teen needs to have a safe base during times of threat. Because we have no timeframe around how long the coronavirus is going to impact our lives and the lives of those around us, nationally and globally, we are unable to gain a sense of control.
Focus on what you can control
My first simple suggestion to you is instead of focusing on what you cannot control, turn and focus on what you can control. Every morning I have chosen to do three things that I can control and they are:
1. Drink a hot cup of tea.
2. Make my bed.
3. Clean my teeth.
… and I am absolutely nailing these three things every morning. My mind cannot run random negative thoughts about me feeling out of control because I have some control.
This is particularly important for people who’ve lost their jobs and are fearful about how you will pay the mortgage or rent and put food on the table. There are many folks in the same boat and the full picture is still emerging on what the government, the banks and support services will do to help us all stay afloat.
You can’t control that right now… so just focus on what is within your control at this moment, one day at a time. It’s important to care for your own mental health as well as your kids at this time, so please take a look at some of these wonderful suggestions in these links from BeyondBlue and Lifeline as well as Kids Helpline, and remember you are never alone.
Please reach out to friends, neighbours and family (over the phone, online or via a note in the letterbox) to connect, check in and offer support if you can. This is especially important for our elderly, essential workers and those who’ve lost their jobs during this pandemic. We are all in this together and we need to look after each other.
You are the safe base
Mums, dads, educators and other caregivers need to find ways to become the alpha figures in our children’s lives. Yes we will have to fake it some days – our children need to be able to lean on us. Because we are the ones with a fully developed prefrontal cortex, we can choose our behaviour and how we respond to this pandemic, while our children and teenagers cannot. Without meaning to sound disrespectful, we really need to pull our big pants on and get on with the job of being what our children need. This article that I wrote for Essential Kids is a good place to start with the basics on keeping calm at home.
You are the best person to answer the questions that your children have about the coronavirus in an age-appropriate way. Each week there will be new questions as things keep changing. Online and on TV we see endless updates on the number of deaths, how much worse it is getting every day and this is feeding into the negative bias that we have as grown-ups – and adding to parental panic.
Please limit the amount of time you spend each day seeking information and rely on a reliable update from a trusted source and avoid anything negative online or on the TV that makes you feel worse. Like many Australians, I’m getting an update every day from someone who I have grown to trust – Dr Norman Swan, via the ABC podcast, Coronacast. If you link to a government health website or one that is based on information coming from medical experts rather than commentators with absolutely no experience with pandemics – that will help you keep your stress level down.
To chat to your kids, maybe start with asking what they do know about the virus and if they have any questions.
I think it could be helpful to explain to them that the virus can survive on surfaces like taps, bench tops, doorknobs, railings, mobile phones, and on plastic or metal playgrounds. This is why frequent cleaning of these surfaces is recommended – seriously you can keep the kids busy around home cleaning surfaces and doorknobs!
We’re hearing reports that around 80% of people who contract COVID-19 will have a mild case with no symptoms and most kids are less likely to succumb. Some kids who have health challenges like Cystic Fibrosis, asthma and cancer can be impacted seriously and the most vulnerable in our community are those who have health challenges and the elderly… especially grandparents. Please reassure your kids that the chances of them getting sick from coronavirus are tiny but they can unintentionally pass it on so they need to be careful!
We are all in this together, kids…
Ensure that you tell your children that this will pass, we are not sure when, but soon the threat will have disappeared from our lives if we take important steps. We just have a difficult time ahead of us until that happens – reassure them that we are all in this together, and that you have got them and that it is not forever.
Please leave the TV and radio off around the kids, other than to watch high-quality children’s programs, without any commercials – you and the kids will need an escape sometimes.
I have struggled this week and needed to escape into a Netflix series that had lots of lovely gardens, scenic backdrops around an ocean, lots of baking and only minimal family conflict! Chesapeake Shores and now Heartland and the Anne With an E.series are where I am hiding from the fear-based reporting. I am normally very fond of crime series, but my nervous system simply is unable to cope with any more death.
Giving kids some agency
Our kids need to know that they are not powerless and that they can have agency in helping the situation. It is our responsibility to ensure our kids that even though they have a low chance of becoming sick, they have a big role in helping to stop the spread of the virus. This empowers our kids to feel they can help, and immediately reduces the sense of anxiety in our kids and builds hope.
Please explain to your children that the reason that things are being cancelled, and that birthday parties are no longer possible, is because we must limit the physical contact we have with others because we are all trying to stop the spread of the virus. This will save lives. Please give them some hope that we might throw a delayed birthday party in many months time and that we can connect online, across the footpath, over a fence, via letter.
Many parents of young children have expressed concerns about the socialisation of children in the absence of an opportunity to play with other children. I need to reassure you that children are socialised by their relationships with you, and possibly their siblings. Indeed we have far too high an expectation about socialisation and young children, seriously this tends to be something that is developed well over three years of age, and more likely between five and seven years of age. So please relax parents and know that you have got this especially as you will now have more time to build even stronger connections with your kids. More on that very soon!
Now back to hygiene – vigilance around hygiene is essential and these two videos show why good handwashing techniques really matter:
Please show these videos to your children, especially your teens so they can understand why it matters. The second one is not in English but it’s a good demonstration to show how easy it is to miss spots when you wash your hands – the black paint on the white gloves representing soap.
Make sure you explain to them about how to cough and sneeze in a safe way and know that you will have to endlessly remind children and teens to do this. Many adults are struggling to do this in a healthy way! New habits take time to form.
Getting teens on board
Many people have been expressing dismay that our teens are not taking this coronavirus seriously. There are some reasons why many of them are treating this lightly and it is to do with the immature brain. Their “it will never happen to me” bravado is developmentally quite normal. Lecturing them, sanctioning them and threatening them will just increase their need to push back, and ignore the important messages they need to know.
One way that could help, is to choose an example of a person over 60 who they love and respect, and ask how they would feel if that person died as a consequence of the coronavirus? Then ask, how would they feel if that person had caught the virus, from one of their friends who didn’t follow the hygiene protocols – who went out while they were sick or touched something or shook hands with that loved one who is now dead?
Then leave them to think about it without any more dialogue. This article from the Child Mind Institute on supporting teenagers and young adults during the coronavirus crisis may also be helpful.
Social beings in isolation
Our families are a small system and we are wired to exist as social beings encircled by other systems like schools, clubs, faith communities and neighbourhoods. As parents our priority is to keep our nearest and dearest safe and every parent will be making choices every day to ensure this happens. STAY HOME IF YOU CAN. Trust your own instincts!
As schools close down, many will be worried about how the kids can keep up academically, while they are physically not at school. I need to reassure you as a former teacher, your schools will be all over this.
There is no hurry and stressed brains don’t learn well so focus on creating a calm home first!
THERE IS NO HURRY. My main concern is for the students who have no access to a computer at home and I’m hoping someone addresses that – I know many schools are working on it. Schools and assessment bodies will be adjusting the expectations of the normal academic year so please don’t add to your kids stress by getting too rigid in your efforts at doing schooling from home.
Stressed brains do not learn well and so prioritise over the next few weeks, creating calmness, safety and predictability in your home. Start with fun, lightness and play – for therapeutic purposes of course! Yes screen time for entertainment may be longer than usual, and that will include you as parents. Lower the bar for a little while until everyone feels a little safer.
So as parents what can you do to help your family thrive in the challenge?
We are being advised to stay home as much as possible (and in some countries people are in lockdown so can’t go out at all). Many parents are now working from home with their children home as well, and because this is not happened before, it can be stressful for everyone.
The brain needs predictability so create routines that have a balance between active and passive activities.
I recommend having a family meeting to plan the new reality with clear expectations and guidelines that can be changed as need be. Rather than do to your children, by telling them how it is going to be, it will work better if you do with your children so that they are a part of creating a new environment. If you have boys in particular it may help to create a visual plan as they can be very forgetful at times.
It may help to still make lunch boxes as it can keep kids feel secure – but don’t worry if that’s going to add more stress. Every family needs to create what works for them – most of time!
Try to keep a balance that allows creativity and imagination to be as important as more academic pursuits. Encourage marble competitions, hopping games, clapping games, plays and/or musical performances no matter how torturous they can sometimes be!
Remember the times you have thought I wish I had more time…well many of you now have it. Time to linger, time to dawdle, time to read, time to play more, time to cook more, time to connect more … so start planning.
There are many sites and articles popping up with lists of activities to do in your homes. There are positive ways of using screens and soon there will be heaps more ideas and resources flowing!
I have asked my team to create a comprehensive list of things you can do from home as you limit your time in public and they will keep adding to that as new things emerge.
Some of these are educationally based, others are about giving young children experiences and new learning about many wonderful things that exist in our world, and that will continue to exist in the world after the coronavirus threat has disappeared. Check out our list…
Nature is waiting for you
Nature is always waiting for us all. Fresh air. Opportunities to run, roll, climb, explore and be exposed to sunlight are everywhere! Beaches, streams, lawns, clouds, hills, rocks, logs and trees are all waiting for you. Right now (as I write this we are still allowed to venture into wide open nature spaces provided we practise safe physical distancing), there’s time to improve your bike riding skills, skating, swimming, surfing and ball games.
Make a habit of staying a couple of metres away from anyone who does not live in your house … physical distancing is still important! Cleaning your bikes or scooters is a great idea too after you have been out.
If you live in an apartment, use your balcony space (even just looking out the window) to bring nature in – observe the clouds, the moon, listen out for any birds you can hear, plant a balcony garden, collect sticks or colourful leaves if you’ve been out for a walk.
Nature Play WA published this fabulous list of 25 nature-based things to do in isolation. It’s a great place to start.
Time to build life skills
This strange time is a fabulous opportunity to spend time teaching you kids important skills like cooking, fixing things, painting, organisational skills and how to use tools. To build resilience our kids need more life skills. Teens can seriously work at this too, so this is a great excuse to check off that list of skills they’ll need before they move out.
Create some new family rituals – fire pits, family star gazing nights, Teddy bear’s picnics, movie nights, make your own pizza nights … get creative.
Go-slow childhood – yes finally!
As we’re being required to stay home, we have the chance to be more mindful – go slow – and practice more relaxation. There are SO MANY wonderful calming audios for kids, teens and adults that you now have time to do – either together or solo. Regular quiet time after lunch is a fabulous new habit to create because we really are being called to make time to rest now.
Strengthening connection and filling those love cups
See this as an opportunity to strengthen connection in your family as to do lists are shorter and there are less jobs to do like running kids to extra-curricular activities and organised sports. This creates potential to discover simple ways to connect through unrushed meal times, perhaps even shared afternoon teas, picnics on your back lawn, movie nights – it’s time to BE rather than DO. Make time to create memories that matter and which are positive.
You can never read too much
Reading is calming and nourishing and it’s something everyone can do together by sharing a story or perhaps with home-based DEAR sessions where you “drop everything and read”. Online bookstores are still open and you can also borrow eBooks and audiobooks from your local library online. While you’re taking this chance to read, I suggest you check out these books for reluctant readers, and to minimise conflict, check out the lists on my website of books to enhance empathy and also some of the best reads on teaching children kindness.
This too shall pass
To conclude, please know that this too will pass. Regardless of how long it will take, this pandemic will end. Everyone is being impacted, inconvenienced, challenged, has lost something of value and had their lives shaken to the core.
Could this be a wake-up call the globe needed to re-evaluate what really matters in life? To bring us closer together to those we love and those in our neighbourhood – to fill our empty cups of disconnection due to the ego-driven need for ‘busyness.’ Our systems, especially education and health, have been moved into business models more about economic priorities than human ones and our children have been swept up in this. We have been stealing childhood in so many ways by forcing parents to work-work-work more and more! We have also been devaluing our elderly because we have so little time to be with them, hear them and care for them. Money cannot guarantee happiness or good health and many are discovering that right now. The culture around economies has led many of us up the wrong path to living a meaningful, purposeful life.
This pandemic may remind us to be more grateful for all the things we took for granted – especially those who help us to live our lives.
That includes everyone from the rubbish removers, the cleaners, those in the arts who give us joy and lift our weary hearts and souls, to those in hospitality, those in our supermarkets, those primary producers who grow our food, those who work in public transport on the ground or in the air… To the early childhood educators and teachers who care and educate our precious kids, those frontline angels who are there in a crisis – the SES, paramedics, firies, defence staff – the nurses, doctors and all allied health professionals… To those who work with our wildlife and animals, those who help those most vulnerable through charities and NGOs, to those who work in the public service, politics and those in the media who do their job with integrity and compassion… To those who look after our teeth, our hair, our eyes, our nails and bodies … To those who cook for us and make our beverages – of all kinds – and especially those who make our chocolate!
As a human I am more grateful, more humble and filled with more hope for humanity because many of us needed to wake up – some a little and some a lot. We need to reclaim the ‘we generation’ and let the ‘me generation’ wake up to come to understand that humans are meant to work together for the greater good not for individual, selfish ‘look at me’ goals.
We are not defined by our physical form but by our humanity.
Turn inward and seek the goodness within – reclaim your human spirit – it has been hiding there all along and it just became drowned out by the ego. Then share the light of who you really are with those you love, others and our world.
We are all in this together – this unpredictable ride we call life that was never meant to be perfect, contained or controlled. We need to know we are never really alone and as we are forced to stretch out our gestures of genuine concern and kindness – albeit at a safe distance, maybe our world will become a better, more caring place.
Interestingly, I wrote this in 2016 on isolation and community.
Stay strong. Stay safe. Stay kind. #weareallinthistogether