Richard Hogan, family psychotherapist, addresses a reader’s question about life during lockdown — how to help your child through the crisis and to enjoy life in spite of it
Q: My six–year–old child is refusing to leave the house, she cries and screams and seems very anxious. We have to stay in the house, she tells me, but doesn’t seem to be able to articulate why. I want her to go out in the garden and go for walks with me, but she refuses. I’m afraid I’ve passed on anxiety without meaning to.
There is no doubt about it, last week was such an unsettling time for our children. They are being constantly bombarded with incredibly dense and negative information atall times and that’s just TV. Social media has also played a huge part in exasperating what is already a challenging time for all of us.
So, they are receiving negative and pessimistic content from all angles. There is no mystery as to why our children are experiencing a heightened sense of anxiety.
Children look to the adult world for how to react to stress and anxiety. And as I said, last week was unprecedented in peace-time Ireland. However, it is not unprecedented in our short history on this planet and we need to bring it into context. While this is unusual, we have the opportunity to show our children how you manage a difficult and challenging time.
If the message your child is receiving from their parent/ guardian is mixed or anxiety-provoking they will become further anxious and fear what is going on around them. We have to model sensible parenting in these uncertain times.
There is a very famous story in the literature of family therapy. A famous psychiatrist was carrying out a piece of research into anxiety in the 1950s in England. While visiting a psychiatric unit he came across a patient who was intermittently clapping their hands. When he asked the patient why she was clapping her hands, she replied; ‘to keep the elephants away’. When the psychiatrist informed the patient there are no elephants in England she said triumphantly; ‘see, it works’. This is often the kind of illogical approach we take to an anxiety-provoking event.
We often come to believe if we worry about something that it will bring about a favourable outcome. Remember, worry doesn’t change the outcome, it only ruins the present. So, we are in an unprecedented time in our lives. Does that mean we allow every moment of our current life to be consumed with information about Covid 19? Of course not.
Obviously, we must stay informed but not to the point that it causes negative rumination in our minds. I have three daughters at home, and I don’t watch the news in front of them. I record it and when they are asleep I watch it. They know there is a dangerous bug out there and that they need to wash their hands more and avoid touching there face and eyes but more than that they really don’t know too much more. We still call to our neighbours and chat from a distance so that they are safe but life generally, except for the fact they do not go to school or have play dates, is the same.
It sounds like your daughter hasbecome overwhelmed with what is happening around her. So, now you have to help her interpret correctly what is happening. Model for her that you are not terrified of the outside world. Go for a walk and when you come back tell stories about meeting your neighbours and what they said, keep it all very positive. Moments of levity have never been more important. Let her see that people are carrying on like normal. Tell her about her friends that you met and that they were all asking for her.
By doing this you will normalise the situation. She has, it seems to me, catastrophised events so that would explain why she cannot articulate her feelings and why she does not want to go outside. Her mind, her amygdala in particular, is telling her ‘stay inside, you are safe inside’.
And now you have to show her you are safe outside too. If the country goes into lockdown and she has not been able to manage her feelings around it all she will experience a further sense of doom and despair. That is not healthy. You have to ask yourself, how did she develop this dread of the outside world? Where is she picking up those messages?
This is not about blame but rather about figuring out how she has come to develop such a negative world view. You have to really monitor your own reaction to what is going on. Of course we are all human and this is not a normal situation.
However, as I said, children look to us for how to react to anxiety-provoking situations. This is one. This is a big one. So, you have to rise to the challenge.
I would also be creative with how she can be with her cousins and friends. What I have found very helpful is inventing new ways of coming up with being together separately. What I mean by this is she can no longer have play dates or go out with her friends, so now you have to bring her friends to her remotely. Involve her in it, children areincredibly inventive. They do not see barriers like the adult world.
Last Sunday, my daughters played hide and seek with their cousins via Face Timed. It sounds like your daughter needs to stop ruminating on Covid 19. Playing games like this might be the tonic she needs. I would also set her projects to do. Think of ways to engage her so she is not worrying all the time. Explain to her that she is home from school because it is a safety measure like when there was snow.
Parents are now being charged with home schooling our children as well as working from home. Just remember how adults react to this stressful situation will show your child how to react.
Help your child to remain positive. Give them hope, talk about things they will do when it is over. Show them that it is only transient. If you do this, you might just give your child the gift of resilience.