This post was guest written for us by Martin Limb, experienced psychotherapist, with contributions from myself and Molly Chatwin, psychology graduate and our assistant psychologist here at The Psychology Consultancy. Both Martin and Molly have previously contributed excellent pieces on coping with Covid-19. Please browse our previous posts to find more of their excellent advice on how you can keep well in these challenging times. Why don’t you also check out our full article on the Covid-19 Five-a-Day, evidence-based advice on how you can promote your own resilience during this lockdown and beyond. You can find it here.
This post is part one of a two-part series that gives practical advice on parenting under the pressure that the current lockdown brings with it. We start off with the idea of reframing, a powerful way to develop new perspectives on adverse and challenging situations, and then introduce a really powerful tool called Feel, Stop, Think, Choose to help you manage those strong negative emotions and anxiety that you and your children may experience under lockdown. This article also has some advice on how you can talk to your children about their feelings. Check out the feelings face masks activity idea below for a really fun way to increase your child’s emotional awareness and feelings vocabulary. In part 2, which is coming soon, we will offer more practical advice on day-to-day life under lockdown, including a range of well-being boosting ideas for you to try!
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The word ‘lockdown’ itself has become all too familiar. For all of us, it is prone to raise images and memories of restrictions on our freedoms. We feel ‘stuck’ and unable to pursue our lives in the ways we have become accustomed to over the last few years. Not being able to see the people we want to, and for so many of us, having to cope with the financial anxieties involved. Someone I spoke to recently said ‘well, it’s not like we haven’t been through it before’. Another person told me ‘Everyone’s in the same boat’. Having been through it before, we may say, doesn’t mean it’s all ‘Ok’ to go through it again, and that there is a lot to deal with!
Are we all in this together, all in the same boat? Some people could argue, to the contrary, that we are all in different boats.
There are new challenges this time. People are tired; it’s winter; there may be a whole set of different anxieties we have to endure. We have the memory of what it was like last time, and the time before. And many, many of us have lost loved ones to the pandemic. So, your lockdown experience may be different from mine. In fact, instead of all of us being in the same boat, some people could argue that we are all in different boats. For some, their financial situation isn’t so much of an issue; for others, it is. For some, children have grown up and left home; for others, there is the necessity to think about home-schooling on top of all the other stresses. And so on. Perhaps it is worth reflecting on what your lockdown story is? And whether your particular perspective is the only way, or perhaps even a helpful way to think about your experience. Going even further, can you ‘narrate’ the same experience differently, perhaps in ways that strengthen your resilience?
Reframing: A powerful strategy to realign experience
Psychotherapists speak of reframing as a shift in a clients’ perspectives or world views. If the shift is helpful, they may see more alternatives available to them, and experience less emotional interference in the way they live their lives. Can you see ways to think about the most recent lockdown differently, but differently in a helpful way?
The secret is to think differently, but not become overwhelmed.
Reframing is different from merely giving yourself a good pep talk, trying to censor out the negative and only thinking of the positive. An effective reframe takes in the whole of the situation ‘as is’ and attributes new meaning to it that acknowledges the full extent of the negatives, but refuses the ‘all bad’ trap (psychologists talk about catastrophising!) just as much as refusing to take a Pollyanna attitude. The secret is to think differently, but not become overwhelmed.
I have spoken to many people who have talked about the ‘good’ side of the last major lockdown in Spring last year: the roads being quieter; that it was a unique experience; connecting more with countryside and wildlife; learning new skills and doing things together as a couple, parent and child, or family—these are just some of the things they have mentioned. This is not to ignore the genuine feelings of powerlessness, isolation, financial stress, and worry that so many of us experienced at the forefront of our consciousness. And there is no denying, it was and still is a struggle for many of us to feel more positive.
I can remember sitting in a small room as a student: rain pouring down; sore throat; the heating was playing up; an essay to get in by the next day, and a song playing encouraging me to ‘be cheerful’. I didn’t feel like following that particular message! I took some time to re-focus myself on a different aspect of what was happening, took a short break break, and came back determined to make progress. Looking at things differently certainly helped me spend less time thinking about the situation’s more unpleasant aspects, which had the effect of slowing down my progress.
Feel, Stop, Think, Choose.
A lovely technique that both adults and children can use to help them view their situations with more breadth, is called Feel, Stop, Think, Choose. This is something you, as parent, can teach your children, whatever their ages.
The sequence starts by acknowledging one’s feelings, but refusing to allow them free reign. The ‘stop’ phase is just an attempt to interrupt them and consequently to take a closer look. This is where reframing comes in; are there other ways to think about the situation? Legitimate alternative points of view? Or perhaps even thinking about what it is about the situation that makes my feelings about it so strong? Choosing is the hardest aspect of this sequence. Choose to act differently, choose to feel differently, choose to take a different perspective. What makes it possible are those three preceding stages: My awareness of my feelings, interrupting the flow of them – and consequently choosing not to act on them thoughtlessly – reflecting on the situation, and questioning my assumptions serve to help me get enough mental distance between my feelings and my actions to be able to make a fresh choice and react differently.
Children and feelings
A situation like this can be a unique time to help a child increase emotional vocabulary. One of the issues for anyone struggling with how they feel is that might even be hard to name what’s going on. This can increase the stress, whereas just being able to label the emotions you feel can take some of the edges off it. This is equally true for you and for your children! Let them know that it’s ok to feel how they feel, whether scared, worried, angry, sad or something else. It is also OK to experience more than one emotion at the same time: You can be scared and angry, or happy and anxious all at the same time. These mixed emotions are often frightening for adults and children alike. The way to start, though, is to work on naming the feelings. Here are some emotion words which are particularly useful to help extend a child’s vocabulary of feelings. Remember they may not express these themselves so it can help suggest what people often feel and let them connect themselves if relevant.
frustrated – lonely—bored– uneasy– scared– confused– uncertain–—upset— ‘down’— worried- nervous.
One way you can help your child connect to their feelings (and maybe yourself too), is to make feelings masks like in the image below. You can then use some of the ideas in the following paragraph with the face masks to develop their emotional literacy.
So, as we have seen, the first step is to help children understand their own feelings by naming them. The second step may be to talk a bit more about coping with those emotions. What can you do if you are frightened? Or angry? Or sad? Who can you tell? You can draw those feelings out or perhaps share how you respond to the same emotions. A very helpful technique therapists sometimes use is to create a story with a child about those frightening emotions – a kind of symbolic reframing. Fear can be overcome by defeating a scary imaginary monster; anger at injustice can be dealt with by making sure the culprit in a story gets his or her comeuppance, and anxiety can be defused by heroes overcoming their odds and creating empowered happy endings. Why don’t you make a story using characters wearing emotions face masks like in the photo!
You can use both reframing and the emotion processing tool of Feel, Stop, Think, and Choose to help yourself and support your children in these challenging times. Perhaps one powerful reframe for the current lockdown, is that you might be able to spend more time with your children and so get to know them better. Working on understanding their emotions as well as your own will help you manage better as a family and promote all of your resilience!
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