Supporting the emotional wellbeing of our children is so important during these difficult times of Covid-19. As an adult, your children will naturally be watching you for guidance on how to respond. This is a sobering thought for many of us, especially if we’re not exactly feeling on top of things ourselves.
Sure, it can feel daunting to know you’re the role model who needs to set a healthy emotional tone at home. The good news is there are simple strategies you can use to make your job easier. It’s not essential that you do everything perfectly, remember. Just try your best to bring a healthy perspective to the situation.
This is a great time to support your children’s emotional wellbeing by teaching them about mental health.
Here are 5 ways to do that!
You could start by initiating relaxed and easy (non-threatening) conversations about mental health with your kids. You might be surprised by what they already understand about it. Short, regular talks about mental health with kids will be more effective than trying to cover everything in one afternoon. Aim to build on their knowledge with these five strategies for improving your child’s emotional wellbeing.
1. You are not your thoughts
In fact, with a little bit of practice, we can actually watch our thoughts come into our heads. The fact we can watch them proves we’re not the same as them! Teach your children that thoughts come and go all by themselves. Help them see that what they think isn’t necessarily true and that it’s always good to check this out with a safe person – like a parent or carer.
Encourage your kids to talk about what it feels like to notice when a thought comes up. Ask them what happens next. Does it stay in their head or does it fade away? Does it make a difference if they write the thought down? Or draw a quick picture of the thought?
2. Focus on what you can control
Help your kids work out which thoughts are about things they can control and which aren’t. For example, they can’t control when they can go back to school, but they can control their own health and wellbeing. See if they can understand that we can all teach our brain to not get caught up in negative thoughts. Talk about ‘catastrophising’ – which is what we do when we stay with a thought and go over it again and again and imagine the worst possible outcome.
3. STOP and NOTICE each thought
One way to do this is to help kids imagine they’re waiting at a (psychological) bus stop. If a scary bus with a horrible picture on its side arrives at the stop, your child can decide not to get on. After a while the scary bus will simply pull away. It’s the same with our thoughts.
If a scary thought arrives, help your child see that they can STOP and NOTICE before deciding what to do next. Like the scary bus they don’t get on, they can choose to not believe a scary thought and not to spend any more time with it. They can let it go by without getting on as if it was the wrong bus.
Not ‘getting on the bus’ isn’t the same as ignoring your children’s thoughts. It’s important to ask how they are feeling and to validate their feelings. Explain to them that while coronavirus is definitely serious and we do need to be vigilant with social distancing and hygiene, things are under control. Infections are decreasing and scientists are working on a vaccine right now. And remind your kids that people have survived worse, like the world wars. Teach your kids… Even if you can’t change something you can change your thoughts about it.
4. Understand that anxiety is natural
During a crisis it’s totally normal to feel fear and anxiety. That is our brain’s way of keeping us safe. The brain looks for danger all the time and gets us ready to respond. Help your kids see that a little bit of anxiety is good for them because it keeps them out of danger.
Remind them what happens when they’re looking down from the balcony of an apartment on the 20th floor or the edge of a high cliff. The body feels scared and so it should in such a dangerous situation! It’s this fear that makes you step back from the edge and maybe save your life. But at the same time, we don’t want that anxiety to take over and control us in our everyday life.
With the coronavirus crisis, our mind is alerting us that there is danger and uncertainty around us. We don’t like uncertainty and so our brain fills in the gaps with scary stories. It’s trying to keep us safe but in the case of coronavirus, we’re not in immediate danger. We’re not standing on the edge of a cliff. Use tips 1, 2 and 3 above to help your children to calm their minds.
The BRAVE program is a great online program developed by the University of Queensland that teaches kids about anxiety and mental health. Check it out here.
And remember, if your child is really struggling with anxiety, you may need to seek professional help.
5. Create a new normal at home
Many things have changed for your children during the coronavirus crisis. They’ve lost school, play dates and sport. And these have been replaced with a lot of uncertainty. As parents and carers, we don’t have the answers like we usually do, and this can be very unsettling for kids. Supporting the emotional wellbeing of your children is the most important job we have at this time. I’ve written about how you can support them in other ways in my article on How to Create a New Normal during Isolation.