As we enter Mental Health Awareness Week, many of us have been dealing with the impact of Covid-19 on our mental health. I have written, over the last few weeks, several posts on how we can support our mental health in this very challenging time. Today, I want to shift the focus to an awareness of the mental health of the children in our care. During my studies at Anglia Ruskin University, in the module Positive Relationships, we learned that children are excellent observers, but not very good interpreters. The onus, then, is on us the be the interpreters of what’s going on around them, and to be able to present it in a way that supports their emotional well-being.
Another of our roles is the be the emotional regulator for our children; they take their cues from us. This is very apparent in infants: they cry, we pick them up, sooth them – regulate their emotional state and return them to calmness – then meet their needs. Notice the order, here. We calm them down first, then feed or change them. As our children get older, they learn to regulate themselves, but we are still the foundation of what and how they respond. When we are stressed, anxious or sad, this will impact on them.
The first way, then, that we can support our children’s well-being is to be mindful of our own well-being. As well as modelling self-care, we need to articulate why we are doing this – remember, they are good at seeing what is going on, but not so good at figuring out why. We can say, ‘I am feeling a bit sad today that I can’t see my friends, so I am thinking about other ways to get in touch. I think I shall send them a text.’ Then, you can ask them how they would like to get in contact with their friends, or write a card to send to a family member they may be missing. Remembering the model of ‘control, influence and accept (let go)’; we can focus on things in our control, and help our children do the same.
I am a keen advocate of the PACE framework and introduce all my clients to it, whether they have children or not. It stands for Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy, and was established by Dan Hughes. You can read more about it here. This is a great way to think about conversations with our children. PACE uses ‘I wonder’ questions, and these allow us to explore how our children are feeling, with curiosity and empathy. ‘I wonder if it’s weird to be at home instead of school?’ ‘I wonder if you feel a bit scared about the virus?’ ‘I wonder if you are a bit worried right now?’ are all examples that you can use or modify. We can also use PACE when talking to other adults, of course, as it’s a lovely, empathetic way to connect. I think it’s a great way to talk about Covid-19 and mental health in front of our children, too, to allow them to understand what we are thinking and feeling in a way that is gentle and compassionate. Often, we think we are protecting our children by shielding them from ‘difficult’ subjects, but what can happen is that they turn the worry inwards, and feel that they can’t ask you about it. Our children need to feel safe to explore their concerns with us supporting them, and that they can bring their worries to us – that we are able and willing to hear them.
Sometimes, though, our children do not have the words to explain how they feel, and this is where, as the adults, we can name and contain those feelings. ‘You look really worried right now’, ‘I wonder if you are feeling a bit anxious’, ‘that must feel really annoying’ all help our children name and therefore start to understand what it is they are feeling. Other ways to do this are to use creative tools. Image-making is a great way – together – to explore feelings. Draw how you are feeling, then working through the image together: ‘I have used red because red is an angry colour and I feel angry’, or ‘big sweeps of colour because my emotions feel really big right now’ are examples of how you can explore the image.
If our children want to explore their feelings privately, worry monsters are one tool that can help. The worry monster's motto is 'We eat your worries'. They are recommended by psychologists and teachers to act as a ‘waste bin’ for the fears, troubles and woes that they don't always tell their parents or carers about. Please bear in mind that they don’t actually eat the worries; it is down to the parent or carer to remove the worries from the monster’s mouth – and thereby be privy to them.
Whilst we are in lock-down, we are able to take exercise every day. Not only is this a form of self-care, but it also allows us ‘shoulder to shoulder’ conversations as we walk with members of our household. These are great for older children, teens, and people who are reticent to ‘have a chat’ face to face. We can discuss our shared experience of the walk; the weather, the birdsong, the cute dog over there, and so on. This helps normalise sharing and allows the opportunity for deeper conversations to develop. For example, this can be the time to do a mental-health check-in; “On a scale of 1-10, how are you feeling today?”
We also need to recognise that this pandemic is a traumatic event for our children, as well as the impact it has on us. If our children are Looked After or Previously Looked After (fostered, adopted or are in Special Guardianship ), it is highly likely that they will have experienced trauma before coming to us. Any further trauma can be dysregulating as it will bring back those feelings and memories. We need to be particularly aware of this. Our children may appear to ‘regress’ or behave in a way that is confusing to us. If we are able to see it though the filters of trauma, attachment and resilience, we will be able to respond appropriately to theneed that is behind the behaviour.
Research shows that kindness benefits the giver more than the receiver, and I am pleased that the focus for Mental Health Awareness Week is kindness. www.mentalhealth.org.uk’s website says: “kindness is an antidote to isolation and creates a sense of belonging. It helps reduce stress, brings a fresh perspective and deepens friendships. Kindness to ourselves can prevent shame from corroding our sense of identity and help boost our self-esteem. Kindness can even improve feelings of confidence and optimism.”
They suggest the following three things:
- Reflect on an act of kindness. Share your stories and pictures (with permission) of kindness during the week using #KindnessMatters and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek
- Use our resources in your family, school, workplace and community to join with thousands in practising acts of kindness to yourself and others during the week
- Share your ideas on how you think we could build a kinder society that would support our mental health using #KindnessMatters and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek
By linking these to our families, the children in our care, and our households, we can help boost our mental health and that of our children.
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