If you research the etymological roots for the word ‘child’ you will travel many paths. The earliest trace of its use appears to come from the Middle/Old English cild, which is akin to the Gothic word for womb, kilthai, but there are also links with chit, which comes from the Anglo Saxon chith, meaning germ, sprig, sprout and with kin, from the Anglo Saxon cynn meaning tribe. So, a rough summary of the associations and meanings attached to the word child reveals links with reproduction, growth, horticulture, genealogy and culture. Any way you think about it, there’s a lot involved in being a child and there’s a lot at stake so parents have their work cut out, even at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.
Parents are central to their children’s development, learning and wellbeing from their earliest baby days. They are key role models and in many ways they are, in effect, their children’s extended brain, monitoring the environment and needs in relation to this, i.e. they are providers, mediators; facilitators; protectors, educators, carers, health supporters, counsellors and entertainers. The list could go on but rather than over-state the complexity of being a parent it’s important to remember that the vast majority of parents are eminently suitability for the job of parenting their particular children. Usually but not always, there is a core biological connection between parent and child, upon which a massive long-term emotional and material investment is made and on the basis of this a profound relationship develops over time, a shared history grows and the intimate and in-depth knowledge a parent has of their children means they are well placed to provide the consistency, reassurance and deep connection that humans need to develop as successfully as possible. In return, children often bring meaning to the adults who care for them and may be living reminders of what really matters such as being in the moment to the full, having fun, learning and hope for the future.
As an educational psychologist, a former teacher and a parent and grandmother I’ve studied and worked with children for decades and now I write. In my book ‘Understand your kids and enjoy parenting – A practical guide to child psychology’ (Icon Books, 2011) ** I attempt to give an overview of the psychological theory and research in order to support parents and anyone involved with children. At the moment I am being asked a lot about how to support children through ‘Lockdown’ and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first instance I suggest people take a look at the numerous sound and well-informed compilations of advice being offered by various relevant official organisations such as the World Health Organisation, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), The British Psychological Society, particularly The Division of Educational and Child Psychology and Division of Clinical Psychology, Young Minds (MIND), The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), The Association of Child and Adolescent Mental Health) (ACAMH) and then there is all the advice that is being made available from the British Government, particularly from the Departments of Health and Education. Bear in mind that this is just a selection of some of the mountain of advice available.
We live in information-rich times so this comes as no surprise but the trouble is, whilst we’re researching, reading, processing, understanding and applying all this very well-intentioned and well-informed advice, if we overdo it we won’t be doing the one thing that our children really need and that’s spending time with them and really tuning into what they and we need at that particular moment. What I have learnt over the years is that parents are the definitive expert in their own unique children, have insider knowledge and understanding of the particular challenges and opportunities that are being lived with and can therefore work with these in a relevant, immediate and realistic manner.
I’ve looked at a large amount of the guidance available and the key messages are summarised in the following acronym: CHILDREN. I hope you find it useful and that you can return to a more normal family life soon and in the meantime can enjoy being with your children as much as possible. Please bear in mind that the suggestions are written for parents whose children do not have additional needs or vulnerabilities. If it is the case that your child has additional needs, which have warranted the involvement of education and/or health professionals then this should continue and you should seek specific advice from these people. Also, if, during this period of lockdown your child displays any marked signs of disturbance or stress that affects his or her normal daily behaviour and/or usual disposition and health then seek professional advice such as from your GP or the Local Education Authority.
C H I L D R E N
C onfidence, caring, continuity and lots of everyday, natural conversations are things that you as a parent are well placed to offer. Welcome your children’s questions, listen to the underlying themes and answer in a straightforward, positive and age-appropriate manner. It is okay to admit that you, or anyone else, for that matter, do not have all the answers but that people, including yourself are good at finding out. Sometimes it will be helpful to follow up on conversations with your children by doing your own research then tailoring what you find out to your child’s age and stage of development. For some good sources of information see the references below. You can also contact your GP and child’s school.
H ave as much fun with your children as possible. Remember that play can be thought of as the main way in which children learn, develop and make sense of the world. It is also a great way to distract and reduce stress not just for children but adults too. For example, it might be helpful to turn children’s questions about people wearing masks into games about pretend doctors and nurses. When you are teaching your children about the importance of hand washing, making up songs and dances to accompany this activity can be very effective. Family pets have an important role too and help normalise this strange time so involve them in the play too. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has made a range of on-line suggestions available including games, literature and even a podcast as well as some direct advice regarding talking to children about the pandemic.
It all starts with you and your emotions in that your capacity to manage your own adult worries and fears through relaxing and enjoyable activities will be hugely reassuring to your children. Everyday pursuits involving music, physical activity, jobs around the home, cooking, home education and generally having fun help everybody and restore a sense of normality.
L ive life to the full by making each day as interesting and varied as possible through a range of physical, creative, active, musical, artistic and educative experiences. Continuing education at home is important but parents need to be realistic about the targets and programmes they set. It is not feasible to try and replicate school at home but a compromise can be reached by creating a small study space for each child. It is important to have some kind of structure for the learning at home and each day try and create an end point or ‘signifier’ of the day’s work being completed. This can be as simple as tidying study materials away and/or by playing a particular piece of music and perhaps having a dance and/or a sing or a particular, favourite game or activity. Depending upon the child’s age talk to them about the school’s and/or government’s plans for their return to school.
One of the biggest challenges at this time is that direct contact with other people is considerably reduced. However, with new technology we still have a range of other ways of making contact with family and friends, for example, through video conferencing, audio and video-enabled mobile phone calls, texts and emails as well as the more traditional written cards and letters. One excellent idea is making cards with your children using their artwork and photos, prints of which can be ordered on-line, for particular people. Depending on the age and friendships of your child it could be helpful to help them set up a group video or WhatsApp chat.
D rawing and artwork in general are terrific ways of helping your children to express what they cannot do so easily in words. In the same way, cartoons, stories, children’s TV and films to suit their age serve an important function in helping children, and adults, to understand and manage feelings and issues. In addition to this try to give each child some one-to-one time where it might be easier to talk. By allotting both times of togetherness and personal space greater family harmony is likely to be achieved at a time when this is needed more than ever.
R ealistic, practical measures have been a key part of government’s strategy for managing the pandemic. Handwashing, not getting too close to others, throwing away used tissues, are important lessons to teach and practice with your children. Fortunately, in my experience, children can be the ultimate realists and if the importance of these measures is explained and modelled repeatedly by their parents they will learn quickly and incorporate into their routine daily life. Children come programmed to observe the people around them and have an intense interest in the world so in combination with your adult wisdom, perspective and balance they usually engage in the structures of daily living that you set up. One other point to add to this is that if possible balance the things that they must do with as much choice as possible. Sometimes they will have ideas of their own about what would make home life better and these are worth considering and incorporating as much as is feasible.
E xercise is being promoted as part of the general strategy for helping people deal with the virus and lots of people are engaging in different forms of it to a greater and greater extent. Trips to the park, on-line keep-fit, yoga and dance and, if this is possible, more time in the garden are all likely to be popular with children, especially if you are doing it with them.
N ews is undoubtedly very adult oriented but so often not appropriate for children’s viewing. If major developments in the pandemic are broadcast it is much better if this is mediated by parents so, on the basis that you know your child and what is likely to disturb or frighten them, be clear about what is appropriate and find other ways such as via your phone or computer or through written materials than screened news programmes to keep up to date. You can then, if you see fit, talk to your children at the right level and in appropriate detail for their understanding, disposition and development in general. It is as important as ever to supervise children’s screen time, especially as they are likely to be using phones, tablets, gaming consoles and the internet even more than usual during this enforced staying at home. Make sure that the right viewing filters, i.e. parental locks, are in place . If in doubt take a look at the UK Safer Internet Centre web site and Young Minds offers some good advice regarding this too.
Useful sources of advice
- National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children NSPCC https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/childrens-mental-health/depression-anxiety-mental-health/
- Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
- World Health Organisation https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novelcoronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/healthy-parenting
- UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/covid-19-parenting-tips
- The British Psychological Society
- Young Minds
- The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/coronavirus-advice-suppport-children-families-parents/
- The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH)
- The Association of Child and Adolescent Mental Health) (ACAMH)
- British Government via gov. co.uk , particularly from the Department of Health and Department for Education
*The term parenting is used to describe all full-time, daily, long-term caring for children and parents may also be non-biological carers