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Parenting through Pandemic and beyond: A message of optimism 

COVID-19 has touched almost every area of society – not least our family life. While the rollout of the vaccine and news of the gradual lifting of restrictions has given a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, the best part of a year in lockdown has taken its toll on us all. Whilst for a few children there may have been some positives, for a significant majority the challenges have felt overwhelming. The universal rise in stress levels for parents and children alike during the pandemic has lit the touchpaper for more negative patterns of thinking and feeling. 

One significant impact on our children’s emotional wellbeing has been the lack of routine and constant change and disruption in their lives. They react in different ways according to their personality and temperament. While testing or anxious children leave us in no doubt that something is up, with challenging behaviour ranging from yelling to withdrawal, - even the most laid-back or compliant youngster has felt that the rug has been pulled out from under their feet. Some ‘speak it out’ and others ‘act it out’, but all have questions that need to be unpacked. Suzi, a mum of three, commented: 

It didn’t happen straight away, but I noticed my silly, smiley six-year-old becoming flatter than usual. He’s sleeping more, and I’m struggling to get him to join in with things that he used to enjoy such as playing with his hamster and kicking a football around. Getting him to do his schoolwork is virtually impossible. His sister, who used to be a good sleeper, is having nightmares and has become really clingy. To be honest, none of us are doing very well.

And in a poignant remark to her mum, 14-year-old Chloe summed things up these few words: ‘I have never felt so consistently sad for so long.’

As parents, we are hardwired to protect our children – we swoop in to avert catastrophe and clear the path ahead – but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that there is much in life that we can’t control. This realisation has brought with it a heightened sense of anxiety for many of us. 

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in managing the rollercoaster of our own emotions as parents is that there’s nowhere to hide. Tamsin, a single parent with two boys aged 6 and 8 commented:

I realise that the boys have been seeing a different side of me. Usually, when I’m at work they are either at school or with our childminder, so it’s been a gear change for them to see me in work mode. The last few months have pushed me to the limit. I’ve locked myself in the loo and had a good cry more times than I’d like to admit.

Our children are like little barometers and we cannot underestimate the impact of them being exposed to our emotional reactions. Many of us will be feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated or worried, but as Director of the Mind and Soul Foundation Dr Kate Middleton advises: ‘The single most valuable thing parents can do for their children is to look after their own emotional wellbeing. It may feel counter-intuitive, but time looking after our own needs at this time is time well spent.’

As parents, we walk a tightrope when it comes to dealing with our children’s emotions. We want them to think positively, but at the same time we need to give them space to express negative feelings. It can come as a relief to know that we don’t need to have all the answers. Simply talking to them, listening to their concerns and acknowledging how they are feeling, is the most important way in which we can help our children process what is going on and make way for more positive feelings to flourish. 

An opportunity to build resilience

As all-encompassing as the pandemic has been, we must remember that it is one chapter of our children’s lives and not the whole story. With the right support, they have every chance of coming through the other side happy, healthy and even having learnt something from it. Navigating the tough times they are going through during the pandemic will increase their ability to deal with challenges in the future by building resilience and growing their capacity to carry that most precious quality – hope. 

English teacher Dawn Wilson-North was interviewed on Radio 4’s PM programme and commenting on her pupils experience of online learning gave a welcome message of optimism. 

When you look at … young people going out into the big, wide world, particularly year 11s, they’re going to have gained so many skills from what they’re doing. They’re learning self-reliance: they have to be there, work the technology, use the technology that adults are using. They help each other in the chat; they copy links if people can’t quite get on. They’re learning resilience. These are all employability skills that they’re going to be well up to speed on in a way that perhaps other students wouldn’t be.

She cautions parents against staring at their children with tears in their eyes and endlessly talking about how awful things are. 

I don’t know that endlessly telling [children] how awful things are for them is helping. It’s not something anyone would say to a child in ordinary circumstances – ‘Your life is a total catastrophe, I’m afraid’ – so why do it now? Any parent should be wary of encouraging a child to think of themselves as an eternal victim, a thing with no agency: these are not good foundations for emotional wellbeing. I think pupils of all ages are being extraordinary, and that their actions are saving us all, and that they should be praised to the rafters for it.

Mrs Wilson-North – I agree.

For our children, COVID-19 won’t be the only difficult circumstance that life throws at them; they have a lifetime of challenges ahead – broken hearts, testing jobs, ill health, dreams that have been trampled on, friends that let them down. And however challenging we have found our role as parents in the crucible of the pandemic, as we do our best to coach our children through this unique season, we can be encouraged to know that we will also be equipping them for the journey ahead.  

Katharine Hill UK Director Care for the Family
Author A Mind of Their Own 

You can find out more about Katharine Hill’s book ‘A Mind of Their Own’ here:  - or it is available from all good bookshops. 

Katharine Hill, 30/03/2021
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