by Dr. Lydia Stone
These days of social distancing and trying to manage daily life in a global pandemic are, at best, unusual and often intensely distressing.
Either way, to some degree, it affects US ALL!
We are ALL adjusting to a “new normal” which is potentially stressful, tiring, and uncomfortable.
This is magnified when we are not only doing this for ourselves, but also caring for others.
What must this be like when others already find their ‘usual normal’ difficult to manage?
Pretty challenging to say the least.
I’m a clinical psychologist and I’ve been interested in psychological trauma throughout my career. I currently work with children who have experienced early trauma (known in the field as developmental trauma).
In this post, I’d like to write a bit about helping psychologically vulnerable children cope with lockdown.
What does vulnerable mean?
All children are vulnerable by nature, simply because they rely on adults for care.
But some are more vulnerable than others because they’ve had a difficult early life experiences or have other emotional challenges.
We’re all adjusting to a ‘NEW’ way of life
As you’ll be aware, the current daily routine is totally NEW FOR ALL families.
Parents and carers may be having to juggle work and home life. They may be working longer hours away from home or they may have even lost their capacity to work, therefore taking on new family roles.
Children are also adjusting to a NEW daily life, mixing nursery or school activities with home-based ones.
Because social interactions have been dramatically reduced, children are having to get used to connecting via a screen. Which for younger children, due to their reliance on non-verbal communication, requires more effort.
Who would argue that all of this, let alone the worry about illness and protecting others, was not highly stressful?
How do we usually cope with stress?
Throughout our lives, stress provokes us to use certain coping strategies.
As social and intelligent beings, humans start learning this (quite literally) in the womb.
Infants are highly dependent on adults for all their care. So, the way that they cope with stress is to elicit help from their parents or another carer – usually by all out crying, but also more subtle noises and movements which carers then start tuning into.
Psychologists call these ‘attachment strategies’.
As children mature, they continue to look to their primary relationships to help them deal with stress. However, their growing body and brain allows for a greater range of abilities.
In other words, they learn more and more different attachment strategies.
Some different ways a child may do this, for example….
They might feel secure enough to openly ask you for help.
They might feel insecure about expressing their needs, withdraw, and try to cope alone.
Or they may feel emotion so keenly that it comes spilling out with high intensity!
When parenting a child who is vulnerable (or indeed any child in these strange circumstances), various things need to be considered.
- Stay attuned to YOUR OWN needs
Firstly, you need to consider your own attachment strategies or how you cope with stress. Managing your own stress allows you to stay attuned to what your child needs.
This, for obvious reasons, will be particularly difficult now.
So, it’s important to stay generous and compassionate to yourself. Things may not go right a lot of the time, and that is okay!
IMPORTANT! Knowing how to look after yourself is key to looking after others.
- Stay attuned to your CHILD’s needs
Secondly, you need to try to stay attuned to your child’s needs.
They may benefit from a clear, highly structured routine (as is widely advocated in the general media on ‘surviving lockdown’). Or they may benefit from more flexibility.
You may find that your child’s behaviour has regressed, and they are doing something that you thought they’d grown out of, like throwing tantrums, being unable to play independently, difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep.
This often indicates that stress is preventing them from using more recently learnt strategies.
In these instances, try to be patient and respond according to what that younger stage needs.
- Give your child TIME and SPACE
Thirdly, your child may need time to process and talk about various issues that have been triggered.
For example, they might want to know why they need to stay at home, why they can’t go into the playground, why they can’t they see friends and grandparents, why people are wearing masks, and why some of the supermarket shelves are empty.
Remember, you are the expert in your child. So how you do this will depend on their age and temperament.
But in general, dipping in and out of short conversations with playfulness and empathy can be more helpful for younger or more vulnerable children.
Using concrete resources such as videos and social stories can also be useful. (There are lots out there!)
- Balancing active and quiet time
Most importantly, making sure your child has a balance of active/stimulating play and relaxation/down time, will help support their physical and emotional health.
Living with the uncertainty that this pandemic has brought is particularly difficult and not something we are used to coping with.
Whilst I hope it won’t be for much longer. There are certain valuable lessons we can learn from it.
I have been reminding myself and my clients to try to focus on the present moment.
Take each day and week as it comes.
Try and feel grounded in what we do know, rather than dwelling on the unknown.
We are all coping, better and worse on different days.
With this in mind, I would like to encourage you to acknowledge and accept these ups and downs with compassion for yourselves as parents, workers, and individuals.
That is all part of keeping well and healthy.
A few resources I’ve found helpful include:
National Child Traumatic Stress Network Parent/Carer Guide