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Local Educator and Psychotherapist Jo McAndrews’ Tips

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Some really useful thoughts on being inside with your children for long spells of time from local educator and psychotherapist Jo McAndrews (may also be of interest to people who do not have children at home, but are nonetheless unsettled during this time)

Jo McAndrews

Here are some ideas about living with children when schools are closed and social distancing is happening. They are based on my experience working with famliies during tricky times, educating childcare professionals, running parenting groups and practising psychotherapy. Hope it is useful.

So, it is here, the time when schools are closing all around the world, in an attempt to slow the spread of the new covid-19 virus. Of course it makes sense but how are we all going to cope with such an unprecedented situation. It is not like the school holidays – all the activities, libraries, museums, groups etc are going to be closed. Many of the usual ways our children spend time will not be available to us. It is not like anything we have ever known. Here are some ideas about how to approach this time for the sake of everyone’s mental health and wellbeing. I am aware that many of us are very stretched and struggling with day to day poverty, stress, work demands, conflict in our relationships, lack of good support, overwhelm, anxiety. There is a lot of inequality in our society. If you are struggling, please reach out for support. You don’t have to do this alone.

1. Don’t expect it to be easy
This is new and weird. We are either anxious ourselves or surrounded by anxiety and confusing information. We are making this up as we go along. Of course we don’t know all the answers. Many parents find it very hard to spend extended amounts of time with their children. It can bring up feelings of stress, inadequacy, desperate boredom, loneliness. Many people did not have the love, safety and freedom they needed themselves as children and so the pain of that easily gets triggered. And now we are separated from friends and playmates too.

2. Take social distancing seriously
We have to do this. This virus is serious and has huge implications for our overstretched health service and for the lives of people we know and love. We need to slow down the spread by keeping away from each other. It isn’t easy for any of us, especially if we have children. That means no playdates – sorry. Just not for now. Children may be at very low risk of catching the virus but they are part of spreading it.

3. Don’t worry about their education
Many people are wondering how to keep up with their child’s education and are devoting hours to homeschool timetables and structures. This is surprisingly unimportant actually in the scheme of things. You will drive yourself mad if you try to keep up with the curriculum and formal studying at home under these circumstances. Your home could quickly become a battleground of control and resistance. It is just not worth it and not necessary. This is an opportunity to learn a whole lot of other things that are not on the national curriculum. Your children will catch up when schools open again.

4. Set up some good support for yourself
See point 1. This is probably not going to be easy. We all need good support. You could find a couple of ‘buddies’ who you can contact every day and offload. Choose people who can listen and understand rather than judge and offer answers that may not be what you need. Or stay in touch with groups you are part of through online gatherings. Talk over the fence with your neighbours.

Self support is also important. Continue with practices that usually support you or learn some new ones. Mindfulness, exercise, dancing, singing, making things, cooking, whatever helps you feel relaxed, calm and content. This will make a huge difference to your ability to cope minute by minute with the stress of being confined and isolated. I can’t emphasise enough how important this is.

5. Connection is the most important thing
This is an opportunity to build connections with your children. Find activities you can do together, ask them what they would like to do with you. Spend regular time where your only goal is to give them attention and love and see what happens. This will grow resilience and help things to stay calm. Feeling safe and loved is our deepest need. Take this opportunity to give your children more experience of it. I am not saying this in any fluffy way, seriously, the root of resilience and mental health is in loving childhood relationships. Many of us do not find this easy, we have not had enough of it ourselves. This is a chance to slow down and learn. Instead of telling your child to do maths worksheets, tell them what you love about them. Look at them with loving eyes rather than critical ones. As much as possible. Sometimes you won’t be able to do this, that’s ok, we are all struggling. Just come back to it as a priority when you can.

6. Listen for children’s anxiety
This is a scary situation, we may be anxious, our children will be anxious. Listen to what they say, ask if they have any questions. Be curious about their feelings, encourage them to say what is going on in their minds and hearts. Where do they feel things in their body? What are they thinking or wondering? Simply being interested and not trying to solve it will help your child know that they are not alone. Having someone accept and understand us is the antidote to anxiety. We adults need that too – see point 4.

7. Invent structures to make the day work
Please don’t feel you need to make elaborate timetables to be like the school day. Don’t have lesson times where you force your child to sit still like at school. You don’t have to be a school teacher (even if that is your day job!). However, some structure will help your family function with some support. Keep it simple and involve your children in designing it. You don’t need to stick to the same getting up and bed times as school days unless everyone is happy with that. Things like sessions in the day for outside time, together time, separate time, house cleaning time, playing time can help give some holding.

8. If possible spend huge amounts of time outside
If you have the good fortune to have a garden, it would be good to practically live in it as much as possible. If you have open spaces around you where you can be distant enough from others then get out there. This will help with energy levels, light and air, connection with nature. There is nothing better your children could be doing, no not even reading or doing maths. Except maybe cuddling you but then you can do that outside too.

9. Find creative projects and games
Here is a chance to start creative and playful activities together and separately. Creativity is absorbing and brilliant for our mental health. You don’t have to be artistic, just willing to explore. Play is deeply therapeutic and also just delightful to do. Except of course that for many adults it is painfully boring and frustrating because we got trained out of it too young. If this is you, give yourself the chance to dip your toe in the water with short sessions of letting your child lead you in a game of their choice.

10. Consider how you use screens
Screens can absorb children for hours at a time, they can be numbing, addictive, isolating. And they can be empowering, connecting and inspiring. It depends what you are doing on them. You probably don’t need a blanket rule for how much screen time but don’t let your children become static, numb and isolated playing games and buried in social media. For older children, there are fantastic ways of staying in touch online with their friends – consider video meetings like facetime and zoom to allow real time face to face conversations, rather than relying on messaging and posting stuff all the time. Make sure there are times when people in the household are giving attention to each other – we all need physical proximity and connection to others for our best functioning.

11. There are loads and loads of ideas online
There are thousands of websites devoted to providing creative ideas for spending time at home with your children. Educational resources, shared projects. Facebook pages are springing up to share ideas about how to deal with this time. You do not have to make it up yourself. Other people have already thought about this, thank goodness, let’s learn from them.

12. Expect restless, anxious, chaotic, withdrawn behaviour and try not to punish it.
Again, this might be a very trying time. Your children may be anxious, restless, bored, frustrated with you and each other. This all comes out in behaviour – in adults as well as children. If you come down hard on distressed behaviour you will make it much worse. Punishing it is unfair. Children are doing the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in. So are adults of course. The difference is in how much power adults have over children and how we live in a society that encourages punishment and threat of children. If your parenting relies on this then you will find it difficult to shift it but it is worth trying. Go easy on them and on yourself. We have a lot to get through and we all need and deserve kindness.

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