Our children have been feeling a huge amount of emotions all at once due to Covid-19. Many sudden changes and life as they know it has changed over and over again the past year. The sleep survey, which I conducted, showed that the impact on children was significant. Many parents and professionals have expressed concerns over the long-term effect on children’s mental well being as a result of the pandemic.
Studies into the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACE), which it could be argued the children of the COVID19 pandemic have experienced, have also explored how we mitigate the long term effects of ACE. Things which showed to counter-ACE’s were things such as positive childhood experiences; having friends, neighbors, caregivers who made them feel safe and cared for and opportunities to have fun.
Children’s emotional well-being, after having to adapt constantly to changes to their education, socialising, experiences and routines is a worry.
It is important to remember emotions have a purpose and are normal and healthy to experience. That is for every single emotion, including the negative ones.
“…emotions happen in order to make us behave. We feel, we act, and then we reflect, storing information on how to act next time. This memory, along with the newly associated emotional responses, determine how we behave in the future.” (Wilding.E , February 2020).
So, although the pandemic has had a significant affect on our children and impacted their emotions. We can support their long-term emotional well-being by how we react and nurture them.
Supporting children to identify and understand their emotions can be a really empowering skill and tool, leading to being able to regulate and manage these emotions later on. But where do we start? How do we start?
There are a number of resources and books available that can support you and your little ones. These are some of the resources I have discovered and used, although there will be many more amazing things about too.
Before we can begin to discuss how emotions affect us, children need to be able to name them. This is best done throughout day to day conversations rather than sitting and teaching feelings out of context. Humans learn best by experiencing it for them selves and through observation. So start modelling and naming your emotions, and support naming theirs.
“ Oh no that was my favourite mug, I am really disappointed/sad I broke it”.
“I can see you are feeling frustrated by that puzzle”
You can also use stories to support discussions around naming emotions. These stories don’t have to be specifically about feelings. Looking at what characters are doing, their faces or asking them about how they feel when they are doing an activity which is talked about in the book.
The next step would be supporting them in managing those emotions. It is important to remember showing emotions is healthy and natural. This is something that is an ongoing skill, not just for children. A big part of being able to manage our emotions is naming them but also understanding how they affect our bodies.
The Resilient Ratties Series explores this nicely and has a range of fab resources on their website.
I believe it is good to get children to explore how different emotions feel in each part of their body. I often use an image of the outline of a person and they label their bodies response to emotions. This will be different to us all, it is important to not lead them in this activity. By understanding how their bodies respond to emotions we can begin to explore strategies to support them. This is especially helpful as an adult when we are observing them if they have become triggered by something or to help us know how we can support them to calm down, whether they’d like contact or not during calming down for example.
The Resilient Rattie books use the decider skills, which uses cognitive behaviour therapy to support their understanding and management of emotions and mental health. Stop Max, explores anger. Creating a FIZZ scale, which gets children to talk and think about what happens to their bodies during that feeling. Max is encouraged to take a step back from what has happened before working through a range of strategies to reflect. In Go, Lucy Go we learn about fear. Lucy uses skills to help her calm such as focusing on the now and what she can see, hear, smell before exploring her big emotions. These stories are full of resources and conversation opportunities which you can begin to apply along with further information in understanding the neurological responses.
Understanding What is Happening in The Body & Brain
In my experience and training as a teacher, learning mentor and parenting consultant I have learnt the importance of understanding what happens to our brains during heightened state of emotion, as well as what factors impact our emotions. Emily Wilding’s Neuropsychological Theory of Human Needs summarises this well. Without turning this into too long a post and overwhelming, here is a very brief summary to get us started (see neuropsychological human needs image). E. Wilding’s Theory of Human Needs suggests that our behaviours are driven by 7 fundamental needs, where regulation is one of them. These areas are all connected and impact on each other, which impact on our behaviours. (Note that regulation is made up of 5 areas, emotions being just one of them).
Therefore, when a child is demonstrating big emotions through a set of behaviours (such as screaming, physical outbursts, defiance, just to name a few) as adults we will need to take a step back and consider which need is not being met? This can be because they are hungry, thirst, hot, tired, overwhelmed (just to name a few). We can also put things in place to help meet some of those needs in anticipation of dysregulation. Such as when there are upcoming big changes, we may want to ensure predictability of a the order we do things in the morning before school and things after school. A few things you may want to consider putting in place for returning to school:-
- Visual cues for what they need to do in the morning (these do not need to be perfect printed visual time tables. A stick-person with a tshirt on a post it note, spoon and bowl, tooth brush, bag and coat, school. It can be on anything it doesn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to provide a visual cue to what is expected, giving them some predictability.
- School uniform could be put into bundles, one for each day.
- Allocate some reconnection time after school. Reading, chatting, bath time, a game or even cooking together. It doesn’t have to be long. But try and create a habit of doing it every day. This is a great way to check in with them too.
- When talking about their day try not to interrogate them. Start off with telling them about your day, what did you do today, what you had for lunch, anyone you spoke to, anything that made you laugh, angry, frustrated, sad. By sharing your day they will naturally start wanting to tell you about theirs. Sometimes prompts like, tell me more about that, what happened today that made you laugh/scared/worried/brave/proud, something you did today that made someone feel proud, cared for, happy. Learning to talk about our days and emotions is all part of building that relationship and skills that emotions are not something to hide from. Later this brings the skill of reflection.
So, what do we do when our children are showing dysregulation (some need/needs are not being met).
Your child is having a hard time regulating their emotions – what happens and what do I do!
As adults when a child is having a hard time, often shown through behaviours we see as undesirable, we try and talk to them, reason with them, bribe them, distract them and what ever other thought may come into our heads at the time…anything to try and stop this! However, this won’t help, in fact it can in most cases prolong the dysregulation.
So lets look at what happens when we become all dysregulated. To understand the pattern and the impact on the body and brain it helps us to help them.
- They are calm. All is regulated and calm (well as calm as children are). Their human needs are being met.
- Trigger – something has happened that is causing dysregulation (see Whilding.E, February 2020, for the 7 needs)
- De escalation. This is where ideally we want to support them to meet the needs which aren’t being met, and over time where we aim for our children/adults to be able to use calming techniques and self-regulation. (note that being able to properly self-regulate their emotions is not something which they have the neurological development to do until their mid-twenties. Although they begin to develop this from about 5-7 years old).
- Peak of emotions . If however, we aren’t able to calm down or regulate the human needs, the bodies response escalates and peaks. This is where the brain goes into full survival mode and is unable to take in new information or reason. This is where all those words and attempts at calming them become pointless, as they just can’t hear or process them.
- Calming down. So how do we calm down from here? Time! Safety! Connection! Keeping our own calm is hard at this point I know. But take those deep breaths, explore your own needs and strategies (we all have our own triggers and needs too). Let them know they are safe, you are there. Some children benefit from being held during these peaks of dysregulation others need space (during which you are also close by and ready for when they need to reconnect). This is where the work on naming and identifying the physical responses to emotions can help you understand what they are going through. If their dysregulation is due to being hungry, thirsty or too hot , try and address those needs. Pop a drink or snack on the side and let them know it is there if they want it. Pop a window open or have a blanket next to them.
- Calm. Reconnect together. Play a game, read a story, have a hug, talk about something you can see/feel/hear/smell. It is really tempting to talk to them about what happened once they are calm. Try and avoid this as the brain’s chemical levels to a stress response take longer to fully regulate than we think.
- Reflection. A few hours later or the next day, sometimes not at all. When or if you do have a chat, refer back to what the trigger was, explaining and understanding what may cause their dysregulation and possible how their body felt and things you could try next time. This will slowly build that experience and knowledge, later leading to them being able to de escalate themselves or identify their needs and meet them. Remember this is something neurologically they start being able to do from 5-7 years old but will take until their mid-twenties before fully developed. This does not need to be an hours long reflection and serious de brief of it. It could be as simple as ‘remember when we didn’t get home until late yesterday so dinner was late. You were hungry weren’t you. So when I asked you to put your shoes away you got angry. Next time maybe we can bring a snack or have a little snack before dinner’.
COVID19, lockdown, home schooling, financial worries, work commitments and so many restrictions on our lives has taken a huge toll on all of us. We have not been able to regulate our needs. We are human. We are going to have experienced a range of emotions and behaviours. When we as adults are struggling and know our children are going through the same it is heartbreaking. Not being able to control and take away those experiences from them is even harder. I hear you. I see you. You are not alone! Parenting in a pandemic is not how we should see ourselves as parents. We were/are all in survival mode.
Our children are amazing, they adapt quickly and create new brain connections all the time. I hope the information and resources in this blog give you an insight in to how as adults we can support our children’s emotional well-being for now and in the future. If you are concerned about your child’s mental well-being please reach out to your health professional. If you would like to learn more about child development and how to become a Calmer Family why not check out the resources, courses, blog posts and your nearest Calm Family consultant here.
Calm Activity Bag: designed by an occupation therapist at Super Kids Therapy. Resources and support cards to develop calming activities. Aimed at primary aged children.
Emotion stones: set of faces showing different emotions. These can be used in play, part of discussions.
All about Feelings: a book which explores naming and identifying emotions. A really nice way to start the conversation with younger children especially. I personally would say this is suitable from 2.5 years up.
By Kizzy Coll-Cats