Article by leading child psychotherapist Alison McClymont
“Mummy the coronavirus hurts my feelings”, no parent wants to hear anything has emotionally upset their preschooler, but even more so when the cause of the hurt is completely outside of our control.
However, these were the exact words my 4-year-old uttered to me last year in the midst of the pandemic, equally dejected, sad, frustrated and confused by the situation all I could think to say in response was “mine too darling”. Truth be told, the pandemic continued to “hurt my feelings” over the past year with its endless lockdowns, travel restrictions and ever-changing rules. But now we have entered a new “phase” things have started to open again, how can we open ourselves up to socialising again after so long being apart?
Just last month in a public toilet I smiled ruefully to myself as I listened to a fellow mother in the next cubicle berating her young child “No darling you know we keep hands on our tummies in the toilets, we don’t touch anything!”. I recalled the flights I had to take due to an international relocation mid pandemic (yes, I know we were mad!) where I spent 13 hours readjusting masks, sanitising every inch of the plane, wondering if I should have got the baby one of those face shields instead of a mask, or indeed if the children were going to be freaked out by the sight of some of the passengers arriving on the flight in full hazmat suits… The coronavirus has been described so often by now as unprecedented, that it’s become a cliché, but there really is no other word to summarise the experience of parenting through these messy times.
Over the last year we have been bombarded by messages that the way to avoid contracting COVID19 is to avoid others, and now since the blissful news that numbers are dropping and it’s safe to hug again, many parents are wondering how to communicate this direction change to children. Many of us have spent so long talking about the dangers of cross contamination of surfaces and the necessity of masks, it may seem strange for some that we are now expected to encourage socialising, instead of telling children to fear it. Well the good news is, for the overwhelming majority of children this won’t be a problem- children are hardwired to seek out the company of others and to play, and they will naturally imbibe the external messages that people are sharing physical space again., there are less people using masks, and adults are talking in excited tones about holidays being on the cards, and that this is a “positive thing” and its “ ok to play again”. But what about those children that don’t?
Firstly, it’s ok and it’s understandable that some children, particularly those who might be very empathic, take a while to let ago of messages that they have been told will protect them- such as avoiding playmates in the play ground. However, children will generally follow the example of an adult, and if the adult exhibits a positive, calm response to a situation its very likely the child will too. So lead the way, demonstrate socially safe and acceptable behavior in response to these new measures- and encourage your child to follow.
If you are the parent of a “worrier” or a child who is prone to repetitive behavior as a “control response” to anxiety, this might take a little bit more. For these children a positive example is crucial, but even more so is encouraging the articulation of thoughts- in the mind of the “worrier child”, fears that might have been internalized (such as beliefs around COVID19 and its possible impacts- death, illness, loss) might have become so overwhelming that the thoughts are intrusive, and in order to reduce these thoughts you might see repetitive behavior such as obsessive questioning or rituals. In an adult, we might describe this as OCD, and indeed in extreme cases, this might be accurate in a child, but following such extreme circumstance as a global pandemic, a child might respond with more “anxious control” behavior than they would normally, which doesn’t constitute OCD. It does however require some help from an adult to help neutralize the worry. The key to engaging with intrusive thought patterns and breaking the fear that creates them, is 3-fold:
- Name the emotion- for preschool children, this might require adult input to help differentiate emotional states such as fear vs frustration for example, for older children it may require the adult to offer their own experiences as a model “I feel like this, how about you?” “ I think if that were me I might fell…” “ I’m wondering if what you feel is…”
- Articulate the worry- allowing someone to express their fear is one of the most relieving things we can do, it reduces the power of the worry and allows it to come out in the open. Remind your child that no fear is “silly” or “embarrassing” and that they are allowed to say anything to you, if it is causing them distress
- Ground the situation in fact-no worry is “irrational”, there is some grain of truth in everything we might fear, anything can truly happen- what is key to managing this is acknowledging the probability of it occurring. Many fears and worries are not grounded in fact, for example it might be helpful to remind children of the facts around COVID19 particularly in relation to death numbers, also to encourage them to learn about vaccines and how they work, and get them to consider “how likely” something is to happen as well as “how likely” it is to not happen
It’s been a sad confusing time for everyone and children are no different, and it’s understandable that little minds might struggle to make sense of this brave new world, just as adults do. Come alongside your child, remind them that talking can help, you also are struggling with some of these feelings and that fearing the unknown is something all people feel- even big people. The unknown removes all control from us and that can be a frightening abyss to stare in to, but it really is just that- unknown, so by that “probability” it’s just as likely to hold something wonderful as it is to hold something to fear.
About the author
Alison McClymont is a leading child psychotherapist with over a decade of experience. She is the author of ‘Wilbur’s Memory Box’ and can be found on instagram using this handle @AlisonMcClymontinsta
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