Life beyond lockdown – supporting your child through what comes next

Over the past few months, GOSH Charity has been talking about the Power of Play – sharing expertise and ideas from the hospital’s Play team about how play can make all the difference for children going through challenging and uncertain times. 

Now, with lockdown easing but many schools and care settings still not fully open to all ages, it looks like some uncertainty is set to continue. We spoke to Mandy Bryon, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at GOSH, about the impact of lockdown on families and how to navigate a world that can seem beyond our control.

What are the common challenges facing the children that you are currently supporting?

Right at the beginning, we saw a real increase in health anxiety particularly around the fear of catching the virus, which is not surprising, particularly for children who were vulnerable anyway with a range of health conditions. I’ve noticed that parents and carers have been very worried about protecting their children, and the children themselves have become highly anxious or developed obsessional behaviours – checking and re-checking things, for example.

It has now got to the point in lockdown where children are finding the ongoing nature of the situation very difficult. Initially it was key that everyone took on board the first wave of information, like ‘stay at home, wash your hands, help stop the spread of the virus, then you’ll be fine’, but, as it’s gone on longer, it’s getting to the stage where, it’s starting to impact on children’s mental health.

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What about parents and caregivers?

No parent wants to put their child at risk, so they might think, ‘OK, well I’ll try to limit my child’s contact with other children and places they might go, which has the knock on effect of stopping them playing as they normally would. But then there are other considerations to keep in mind; what places can we go, and how can we get there? Sometimes it seems easier to decide not to go at all and avoid any risk. Then parents hear things like their child has ‘more chance of being hit by lightning than getting coronavirus’, and so the uncertainty continues. 

I think a core thing is wanting to protect their children while also appreciating that it’s getting increasingly difficult to stay within their four walls. There are real concerns, too, about their children’s education and how to support them to catch up but not really knowing what to do for the best. For some, this first stage of easing of lockdown is almost causing more stress than right at the beginning.

Lockdown is easing but normality is still a long way away – how are things changing for families at the moment?

Increasingly, we’re seeing that the reason for parents getting in contact with us has changed. I think families were OK to begin with; protecting their children and shielding them, felt like the right thing to do. 

However, as time has gone on, we have begun to recognise other conditions developing such as agoraphobia – some children are becoming frightened of leaving their houses. We’re seeing increasing rates of depression and loneliness, and for those not going back to school, a fear that there are things going on without them.

I think the focus of anxiety has changed - from fear of contagion to the worry about strained relationships. I’ve had several parents saying that they’ve had the almightiest row with their child that they can’t see any way back from and the child isn’t speaking to them. Of course they will, but family structures are starting to feel the pressure.

As lockdown has gone on for so long, some parents feel they have lost the capacity and energy to be creative. Almost overnight, parents have had to become teachers, playmates and friends. It’s an intense situation so it’s no wonder, there’s been an increase in arguments, and behaviour problems driven by the fear about what the new normal is going to look like.

What is your advice for parents and caregivers talking to their child about lockdown and what happens next?

With shielded children, it’s about what you can continue to do that isn’t breaking the rules yet still introduces variety and a change of scene. For the general population, it’s about looking at what you can do, what’s within your powers of choice and control and putting those into action - but ultimately it comes down to whether your child is safe or at risk. Try and minimise the risk, rather than trying to get rid of the risk entirely.

I think it’s important to say that parents and carers are always the experts on their own child. They know whether their child finds too much information overwhelming. It’s down to the child; some children like having that certainty of detail, whereas others prefer more general guidance. 

I tend to find that children are better with clear facts. The key thing is being clear -– setting clear boundaries about what you can and can’t do. But you can still introduce an element of choice, letting the child make the decision about what they would like to do. That way, the child feels that they have some control over their activities and what is going on.

A nice idea is to create a timetable with pictures on it so the child can be in control of filling it out. It could be that there’s some reading and spelling times set throughout the day, but they can also choose when and what their fun times are. It’s about parents being creative about new things to try out - keeping that momentum and creativity going, which is where play comes in.

Dealing with things beyond our control

Sian, deputy lead of the GOSH Play Team (pictured), suggests a six-point plan for how to communicate, coordinate and support your child through the uncertain times ahead.

Firstly, recognising that you’re ‘good enough’, none of us know the perfect answer and that is usually because there isn’t one. You are doing a great job. Looking after yourself is important too, we will all have up and down days, and that’s ok.

Having conversations around feelings might feel daunting or might be completely familiar but the key from our perspective is that you try to create the conditions for it to be okay to talk.

Finding space, time, honesty, and opportunities to explore creatively are also really important. Things like a spray bottle full of paint can help to release tension and cause delight, play dough allows expression through small movements and a safe outlet for frustration.

Share a verbal acknowledgment of how it feels for you, it can be reassuring for children to know they are not alone in their feelings of uncertainty. Parents can be tempted to put on a brave face for their children; it’s understandable to want to save them worry but often children are sensitive and pick up how you are feeling so saying it out loud can be healthy. 

Create a Jar of Happiness/Joy. Write down compliments you’re given, hopes, things you are grateful for, pop something in it every day. On tricky days, dip your hand in and share the joy. You can find out more about this activity.

Routine is often something that steadies all the chaos, it could be a story time each day, a bedtime cuddle or bath, or 10 mins of crazy dancing.

For more inspiration and support, check out our hub – packed with ideas from the Play team to help you through whatever happens next.

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