Locked down Family Life

I am delighted to be able to bring you the following piece by Rebecca Bergese,  a Child and Adolescent Psyhotherapist, artist and author. Rebecca is the author of “Understanding your 10-11 year old” in the Tavistock series Understanding your child.  She has worked in the NHS and private practice for over 20 years. She is a visiting lecturer for the training in Child Psychotherapy at the Tavistock Centre, and also teaches on courses in Italy, Ukraine and Russia.

Locked down Family Life explores the psychological impact on children and parents of staying at home with their children during the current crisis. Rebecca presents her deep understanding and some thought provoking perspectives on the ways in which children might express their anxiety under lockdown and what parents can do to help.  She addresses questions such as whether you should stick to strict family routines, or how you might know that your child is struggling to process the changes in social behaviour we are now asked to implement.  You will find helpful ideas that you can use throughout.  For example, I was struck by the power of just giving my child 20 minutes of my undivided attention every day.  As we face lockdown for an indeterminate period of time, understanding what happens for our children can really help us as parents to support their resilience.     Dr. O

Locked down Family Life

by Rebecca Bergese

We are all adapting to a radical change to our lives at the moment, with the prospect of remaining isolated in our homes for an extended time. Everyone will be feeling  the strain.

While it is hard for those living alone, it is extremely demanding for those of us at home with our children, perhaps in a small environment, with little chance of a few minutes  peace!

If you are part of a parenting couple, then you can share some of your resources to care for your children, and balance their needs with your own work, or personal needs. If you are on your own with a child or children, the pressure is magnified as the daily challenges of keeping your family entertained, educated, and calm yet still find time for work and relaxation may already be exhausting.

It is a worrying time for adults and children alike.  Children may not have the same responsibilities as their parents, and their understanding of the virus may not be as mature as an adult’s, but they will be aware of the general atmosphere of concern, and troubled by the constraints of having to stay at home,, not be able to go to the park,  or see other children. Many enjoy the routine of school days and the social contact with their peers. The novelty of being able to play in your pyjamas,  spend days with their parents , or avoid homework,  have probably already worn thin. Siblings who normally have a tolerable supportive relationship, might be feel different    when thrown together twenty four hours of every  day.

child with dog176073041

So how to help your children and yourself during this time?

Children and anxiety

Although we might regard babies and very young children as too young to understand or remember events affecting them or their carers, we know from extensive studies, that  babies are highly tuned into the emotional world of their carers and other family members from birth. They are sensitive to mood changes in their mothers and fathers. Their survival depends on making good contact with their carers and to do that they are primed to absorb and respond to the behaviour and feelings of the adults around them.

“…babies are highly tuned into the emotional world of their carers and other family members … They are sensitive to mood changes in their mothers and fathers. “

They experience the emotional lives of their families quite powerfully, without the  experience that older children or adults can draw on, to help them understand what might be happening.  So even  babies and toddlers will be troubled by the changed mood of adults around them  at the moment.  It might appear in the form of more restlessness or crying, a reluctance to be put down to sleep, or increased fussing around feeding. Alternatively you may find that your baby is rather easy going and seems to sense that you need some space. She becomes quiet and sleeps more than usual. The important element here, is how you are feeling. There is a great deal of evidence to show that babies  behaviour and even their health is directly related to their experience of their carer’s emotional well being. So if you are concerned about relatives, perhaps preoccupied or unwell, your young child will respond.

Older children may show you more directly that they are struggling with the  situation. Some may ask questions or express fears. A young child may express worry through not sleeping well, and having bad dreams.  Alternatively they may be excitable and less able

“Some (older) children become withdrawn and want to spend their time lost in TV programmes or online games, while others become  attention-seeking…”

to focus on games or meals.  They may become badly behaved or aggressive. Some children become withdrawn and want to spend their time lost in TV programmes or online games, while others become  attention-seeking, needing your constant reassurance. The particular way they express their anxiety will have  more to do with their life so far, than the present situation, or their age. For example,  if sleeping and settling have always been the point of concern for you and your child, it is likely that at the moment this will emerge more strongly as problem for you both.

However,  while this is an added load for parents and carers at a difficult time, it is important to bear in mind that this is a healthy child’s response. We might want our children to be well behaved now, to be more independent and calm, as it would make the days more comfortable for everyone, but children generally express their worries differently from us, not least because they may not yet have ways to think or talk about their worries. It is very usual for young children to need to use their bodies not only to learn about the world around them, but to express feelings that they cannot articulate. For this reason that young children usually enjoy playing games that involve a lot of physical activity. This is a challenge if you are living in a small space, but being able to provide a channel for physical expression can be  a good safety valve for everyone in the household. There are some ideas for this further on.

Not to say that all boisterous lively play is a sign of anxiety, but if your child seems unable to settle at any time of day, or  expends a lot of energy in behaviour that seems less about fun and more about winding up others, or  stopping parents from attending to other children or other matters, one might wonder if the child is afraid and worried.

As just mentioned, the child who is quiet and biddable, who sits nicely at the table drawing or watches screens for hours without a peep, is a blessing in present circumstances. Your  child may indeed be content, and enjoying the closeness of family contact, they may be naturally quiet, but if your child seems unusually calm and quiet, it could be that they are trying to manage worries, they cannot even identify or name. The

“…if your child seems unusually calm and quiet, it could be that they are trying to manage worries, they cannot even identify or name.”

worry might be connected to a feeling of responsibility. As if the health of the family depends on their good behaviour. without realising it, they are trying to  protect their carer. A young child does not have the experience or the emotional maturity to be the protector of his carer though.

Research has shown that  children learn from a very young age how to cope with the impact of ordinary changes and set backs. The ways they find to manage and to cope with difficulties are effective protection from emotional vulnerability throughout life. At times of pressure and stress, children and adults may revert to strategies for coping that were established very early on. Generally this is helpful and protective, but at times when the stress is too great, these same strategies become strengthened, and can have an unhelpful and limiting impact.

You might’ve noticed something similar if you have ever had to settle your child into nursery or school. After the first stage of building up confidence to separate from their carer, children seem happy to join the class each day. Then carers can feel exasperated that their happy  child comes home from school each day and becomes aggressive, grumpy and demanding. After a busy day at school they might become angry babies at home. You might notice their desire to cling to Mum, or to sit and suck their thumb, or to  request food or games that they enjoyed at a much younger age. This is the  the child’s  instinctive way of processing a difficult  or demanding experience, and with patience and understanding, they will more quickly return to behaviour and outlook that  is more characteristic their age.

At a time when adults are also under pressure and worried, it is important to remember

“… it is important to remember that your children will be responding to how you are feeling … So above all else, you can help your children manage their anxiety by … looking after your own emotional health.”

that your children will be responding to how you are feeling, and how much you might be different in your emotions and behaviour. So above all else, you can help your children manage their anxiety by trying to look after your own emotional health.

childrens drawing_177213184

Some ideas for managing stress in the family.

It won’t be possible to completely reassure your children during this uncertain time but  the following ideas might alleviate some of the stress for the whole family.

Keep the world reliable and predictable.

First of all, we know that children feel secure and confident when their world is reliable and predictable. At the moment it can be very hard to stick to a  consistent routine, but  can be hugely helpful for children of any age. The days do not have to be rigidly timetabled, or be without any flexibility, but  the purpose of the routine is to structure something reliable and predictable.  In whatever ways you can, keep the usual habits. If you all eat breakfast once you are dressed for the day, then continue this pattern. If you only eat chocolate and cake after lunch, then keep that habit now.  It might be tempting to relax some routines and although this is fun and enjoyable on occasion, it can cause anxiety for children, as it is another thing that they cannot control, or take responsibility for. Children feel comfortable with carers taking charge of the bigger matters in life. Try to let them choose the smaller matters, but stick to your daily routine as far as possible.

You will  want time for your own work, and you need  time to relax. Your children need the same mixture. Most significantly, they will feel less anxious if they see you feeling relaxed, or at least calm and decisive. Children become distressed if they feel their parents are struggling.  Having said that, it is also important that they have an authentic experience of you too. You cannot be calm and relaxed if you are very worried about your health, your families future or cash flow.  You cannot be full of laughter  pretend all is well, if you do not feel it. How  can you find ways to alleviate your own tension and anxiety then? There are many good suggestions available from other articles on this website and other sources.

Make some family rules about living together.

Just as children respond well to structures, so they also feel more secure with some guidelines, or family ‘rules’ about how to behave and live together in the new environment. Again, it is not necessary to impose a rigid schedule, or  strict discipline on your children, but rather, they will feel more comfortable if there are a few simple family ‘rules’.  Each family has it’s own culture  so choose what matters for you and your children, what will help you, and then what will help them.  For example, if you have one laptop in the household and everyone needs or wants to use it, a plan that you can easily stick to as to who uses it and for how long, will  help children to feel that their needs are protected and valued alongside others. Everyone needs to protect some space and time for themselves, but they need to believe that there is space for everyone to be considered.

At first this might meet with opposition and some rebellion, but if you keep your ‘rules’ simple and  stick to them, they will eventually be accepted and may even be policed by some children in the household!

Break the family rules … occasionally!

Despite having agreed structures  and  everyone committing to them, it is quite natural for all of us to then break out of them sometimes. This could be because of anxiety and needing to test the strength and commitment of carers, or it can be because we have outgrown them. Perhaps the hardest task for carers during the lockdown, is to find tolerance and understanding of children’s  behaviour.  If you are used to ordered routine and private working space, the challenge of two or three young children will be severe and frustrating. Try to remember that children’s resources are less than yours, and they may need your support to express their frustrations.

Make time to talk with your children

As already mentioned, it is hard for children to articulate worries and feelings, although when they do, often it is more direct than we can manage, as adults. Some children will talk about their fears and can engage their carers in answering their questions, but many do not. It can be hard to judge how much to tell them, but you will have an idea of your child’s personality and with their stage of development, how much detail they need.  It does not reassure them to hear that there is nothing to worry about, but of course, one must judge how much they need to know about the facts of the present health crisis.

Adults can be helpful models for their children. If they hear you talking about your thoughts, or verbalising feelings,  they will gain confidence to talk too. It is tempting to talk to, or at children, especially when we are anxious, but this is seldom supportive for them. If instead you find time to play or to chat with them, allowing them to  suggest activities they will  feel more relaxed and enjoy your interest in them. You might not be able to manage more than a twenty minute stretch , but even this will be an opportunity for them to process some of their feelings.

Find something you enjoy doing together.

Find something you enjoy doing with them, and don’t feel obliged to do earnest or educational things. If you like cooking, cook with them. Some people are good at drawing and making things, others not. Don’t feel pressured by other people’s philosophy. If you can give them twenty minutes of undivided attention, playing something that you both enjoy, this can be a very good time not only to strengthen the relationship, but helps them to feel special and unique, rather than one the ‘kids’. You may notice yourself, that  since we cannot meet our family and friends face to face, we are more conscious of the small moments of contact that come through video chats, or shared jokes. There are many online resources for activities, games, projects you might enjoy doing with your children. but once again, the key is that you find something you too really enjoy.

Where to find out more…

If you would like to read more about these ideas, please see the following :

Bowlby, R.  ‘A Secure Base’,  Basic Books 1990

Parker, R.  ‘Torn in Two, Maternal Ambivalence,’ 2005

Tavistock Clinic Series ‘Understanding Your Child” Series edited by Jonathan Bradley,  Jessica Kingsley, 2008

Waddell, M  ‘Inside Lives’, Karnac 1998

Winnicott, D.W. ‘The Child, The Family and The Outside World’,  Penguin 1964

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