The Importance of Emotional Authenticity for our Children

Being a parent can be a difficult job and being a parent at the moment is even tougher. Our media and social conversations are dominated by COVID-19, which exposes children to large amounts of information about ever increasing infection and death rates.  Whilst the adults around them are understandably preoccupied with the implications of the pandemic, children are also experiencing substantial changes and restrictions to their day to day life. So while children are relatively unaffected by the virus directly, its psychological impact cannot be underestimated. 

How can we take action to protect the psychological wellbeing of children during these turbulent times? 

Even very young children are seeing or hearing things that could be scary or worrying. As adults we all have extra things to juggle at the moment, and that can make it even harder to be a parent. Things like not having our family or friends around, money worries or relationship difficulties can mean we feel quite anxious or frustrated ourselves. 

It therefore matters more than ever that we talk to our children about what is happening. Research has shown that how we communicate with children about subjects such as illness can have an impact on parent's and children's psychological and physical wellbeing. 

Children as young as 2 years old are aware that the world around them has changed. Children are affected by our feelings and behaviours without us even realising. That's why conversations about Coronavirus with really little children, in a way that they can understand, could really help both them and you.  

A team from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, in partnership with Blackpool Better Start, have created some top tips for parents and carers to help children make more sense of this difficult time: 

  • Children are experiencing changes to their usual routines, and this can be a real challenge for them.  Children show their feelings through their behaviour; this can mean being more clingy than usual, acting out or starting an argument over nothing. Taking time to share a story or do something together, away from the news or phones, can help them to feel safe and secure. 
  • Whilst it might seem like you should protect children from knowing how you are feeling, don't think that you need to hide all of your emotions. It's really helpful to tell your child that you are feeling unsure and concerned about the changes to our lives. This will help your child feel safe talking about their own feelings. Being honest together reassures children that it's ok to feel the way they do, and that they are not on their own. Talking as a family about feelings will help support them to learn about their emotions and what helps when they are sad, worried or angry; these are such important skills that will last a lifetime. 
  • Ask your child what they know about Coronavirus - it could help you to understand if they feel scared or anxious or if they are confused about anything. This also gives you an opportunity to check they haven't misunderstood anything. This is particularly important between the age of 4 and 7 years, when children are influenced by "magical thinking". This is when children believe their thoughts, behaviours or wishes cause external events, for example, wrongly thinking that their bad behaviour has caused someone to become sick. It's important to tell children the facts about the virus and reassure them that is was not their fault if someone has got sick. 
  • It's good to check with your child if they have any questions about Coronavirus. Don't worry if you don't know the answer; it's ok to say "Great question, I don't know. There's so much that we don't understand about this virus because it's so new." 
  • There are also activities you could do to share how you and your child are feeling together. You could: 
  • a.    make a feelings jar  

    b.    make up a game in which you mime an emotion and see if other people can guess correctly 

    c.    think about different animals as a way to describe changes in mood (e.g. when I am cross I feel like a raging bull, or a stomping elephant, but when I am scared I feel like a tiny shy mouse that wants to hide) 

    d.    draw around a member of the family on a piece of old wallpaper/newspaper and mark on the ways our bodies change with each feeling (e.g. heart races, hands get sweaty, tummy feels like butterflies) 

    e.    with older children, brainstorm as many different words as possible to describe emotions and display them as a graffiti wall picture

  • It's important to reassure your child about how you will look after each other. This could be through really simple things like having a cuddle and saying "We will work through this together as a family, whatever happens." 

Although the future looks very uncertain and many things are beyond our control, it is important to remember that we can take very practical steps to support our children cope and protect their psychological health, whatever the future may hold.