By ADRIENNE GARSIDE
Though official data is probably some months away, it is clear to anyone looking that the current pandemic has caused children’s fear and anxiety to spike. The organisation I work for, Iris Foundation, is hearing this directly from parents, educators and community partners across the Central Coast who are working hard to support children’s mental health in a time of unprecedented global disruption. These people are the helpers that children can count on to help them feel safe in a crisis.
Studies show that having at least one trustworthy and consistent ‘cheerleader’ in their lives is hugely beneficial to children’s’ emotional development. More than ever before, parents and caregivers have a vital role to play in fostering a sense of hope at home. Though this will unfold differently in every family, some strategies for managing fear are universal.
Reinforce stability with routine
Even if schooling has been disrupted, other established routines like eating, exercising and sleeping should remain in place as much as possible. Creating some certainty around daily scheduling will help children feel safe and secure. But be realistic about the amount of educational work your child can get through in a day – remember that even adults with fully developed coping mechanisms are less able to focus their attention in an unpredictable environment. Try breaking up schoolwork sessions with frequent diversions into play and rest time. It may also be a good time to expand your view of education to include important life skills like cooking, caring for plants and animals, writing letters and thank-you notes or making simple home repairs. Be kind to yourself and your children about productivity – it is one driver of modern capitalism that needs to take a back seat for the time being.
Limit news consumption
Relentlessly scanning news and social media sites may feel like a form of connection, but it can leave you feeling tired, stressed and prone to catastrophic thinking about the weeks and months ahead.
For yourself: Don’t engage with social media speculation about the current public health situation and how long it might continue. Perhaps choose one preferred (and fact-checked) news service to look at each day, for a limited time.
For young children: Every parent knows that small children are surprisingly perceptive about changes to family structure and routines. Keep them informed in age-appropriate ways that don’t overstate their own risk.
For older children: Check in with tweens and teenagers about the news they may have come across during the day to correct misconceptions and talk through any fears that arise.
Generally, focus most online time on connecting with friends or playing games to decompress.
Look out for number one
Contrary to what we may have been conditioned to believe, the caregiver role is pivotal in a crisis. To provide reliable support to others, parents must prioritise their own mental and physical health. At minimum, carve out a small window of time each day for exercise, meditation or other self-care activities. Delegate tasks to all household members currently at home to encourage a sense of shared responsibility rather than nursing resentment. Stay in touch with your support network of family, friends and healthcare professionals.
Chances are that the coronavirus is not the first major difficulty you have faced as a parent. Think about the inner strengths you’ve drawn on to overcome setbacks in the past. Your children are getting a first-hand lesson that unforeseen challenges are part of life and can be survived. Let them know you are there to walk with them into an uncertain future – with hope.
Adrienne Garside works for Iris Foundation, a charity that aims to reduce the risk of suicide on the Central Coast. The Foundation achieves this by facilitating and supporting awareness campaigns, programs and partnerships which enhance community connectedness and well-being. For more information, please visit: www.irisfoundation.org.au.