At present we are hearing about many different presentations and difficulties experienced by children and families as they move from the lock down stage to a stage that involves increased socialisation.
What we have just been through in the last year is unprecedented and we have never experienced a world before where children have been forced to stay at home, away from school and only spend time with those living in their home. There have been some positives reported from this period but also many challenges and moving into the next phase, although welcomed also brings a new set of challenges.
Parents are reporting a number of problems as they move from lock down to a stage of increased socialisation such as children presenting as unusually shy, clingy or unable to speak in the company of others. Children refusing to leave the house or their family. Being behavioural when with other people, becoming very emotional or tearful and/or presenting as extremely tried and cranky. We have no research to work off/no norm to go by to look at how children should be acting, as this situation is so new, but there is nothing surprising about any of these reactions. Children have been unable to interact for many months and although excited about moving forward now, it is likely challenging, confusing and overwhelming.
How can I help my child cope with life post lockdown….
Understanding what is going on is key…and the ‘what’ is different for every person.
It is always very important to check in first about how we are feeling. Are we nervous about the move away from lock down? Does this move trigger any past feelings for us, like a time before when we were trying to avoid infection post or pre hospital stay? Once we know how we are feeling we can make decisions on how best to manage our own feelings, otherwise we might be expressing these feelings with our children without our knowledge. It is likely that many adults feel a little scared or apprehensive about socialising again, so you are likely not alone. Talking to other adults yourself about this can make sense of your feelings
Second thing parents can do is try and understand what might be happening for their child. You know your child best, so what strengths and difficulties do they have that help or hinder this transition.
For all children, these situations can be very tiring as the demands socially, physically and cognitively and in terms of communication needs are all much greater than during the lock down phase and so we would expect to see significant tiredness and what we call dysregulation (the feeling of the system becoming overwhelmed).
For children with additional needs such as learning disabilities, communication difficulties, sensory processing difficulties and ASD to name but a few, additional challenges are expected and so the dysregulation is expected to be greater. Adapting to new routines for any child takes time and patience for the child and the parents.
For example, children with sensory needs might have found lock down a welcome break from noise, crowds and demands. Now facing back into busy, noisy environments can feel overwhelming for them.
If your child is naturally a little shy or quiet then seeing friends or extended family again for the first time in many months can lead them to feel unable to speak, very clingy and afterwards maybe very overwhelmed or emotional.
Are there any practical measures I can use to help them cope
- Preparation is key to ease any anxiety or stress. Using whatever communication method that usually works for your child; a verbal conversation, a visual schedule or a social story. Explain to them when they will meet certain people using this communication method and what might be expected of them in this situation. Will anyone be wearing masks, aprons, PPE. If attending school/appointment/events, ring ahead and ask what the staff will be wearing in terms of PPE so that you can show a picture to your child. If meeting friends, make a plan for how the kids will interact; will they be expected to socially distance or will the children play in a small group and adults just distance, this is important for the child to know. All of this information can be discussed with your child and can lead to a reduction in anxiety as they have more clarity over what to expect and what is expected of them.
- Bringing snacks and making sure they are not hungry before any trip to avoid regulation difficulties from hungry.
- Similarly making sure they are in bed early the night before so they are well rested before they begin.
- After the interaction, make sure that they have sufficient down time. Down time should allow for minimal demands on the child, allowing the child time to relax and unwind. Time like reading time, sitting in a bean bag, playing alone if that helps, watching tv, relaxing on the couch, cuddles, cups of hot chocolate..anything that provides comfort and support. This is short term stuff so don’t be worried about developing bad habits.
- If they are upset, spending some time with them and comforting them without asking too many questions. Just being with them can be enough to regulate them. Once they calm down you can talk to them about feelings if appropriate for their age and understanding. Modelling how you felt yourself either verbally or visually. I felt a bit scared when I saw my childminder/granny/friend wearing a mask but it’s ok I know the mask is just a little thing that helps her to stay healthy and well. How did you feel?
- Lastly take small steps, start small; small groups, shorter times and work up from there. With anything new and a little scary for any child or adult, we don’t want to start too big as that will likely lead to more challenges and increase the chance of avoidance in the future. Starting small and increasing in baby steps is the best way to achieve success.