How To Build Your Children’s Emotional Wellbeing by Katherine Hall
Katharine Hill is the UK Director of national charity Care for the Family which aims to promote strong family life and to help those who face family difficulties.
]She is a well-known speaker, broadcaster and author of a number of books including her latest, A Mind of Their Own. Below she shares how to build your children’s emotional wellbeing in a post-pandemic world. Thank you Katharine.
This week I had my second AstraZeneca jab, hugged my grandchildren and enjoyeda flat white in a coffee shop with a friend. Whilst we’re by no means out of the COVID-19 woods yet,things are gradually beginning to return to some kind of normal. Or are they?
Parents (who’vehad a stressful year juggling home-schooling-home-working), breathed a sigh of relief when schools reopened, only to discover that theadjustment back to full–time education has not been without challenges of its own. It seems that many children are reporting rising levels of worry and anxiety, having found coming out of lockdown as stressful going into it in the first place.
For a few children, there may have been some positives to lockdownbut for a significant majority the lack of routine and constant change and disruption to life has knocked their emotional equilibrium. Younger children have missed the structure of the school day, playdates, sleepovers, birthday parties and sport. How they’ve reacted to this depends on personality and temperament, but often there has been new and difficult behaviour. Suzi, a mum of three, commented:
‘It didn’t happen straight away, but I’ve noticed my silly, smiley 6-year-old becoming flatter than usual. He is sleeping more, and I’m struggling to get him to join in with things he used to enjoy such as playing with his hamster and kicking a football around. Getting him to do his schoolwork is virtually impossible.’
Schools are reporting that children who were previously potty trained have regressed back into nappies or forgotten how to use knives and forks. And researchers have found that the lockdown has negativelyimpacted young children’s language and communication skills, and their ability to concentrate and to socialise.
For our teenagers, at the very time they should be flexing muscles of independence, months of being grounded at home and in an educational limbo has tightened apron strings and curtailed their desire for freedom and adventure. And the cancellation of exams – at first a cause for celebration –hasn’t turned out to be such good news after all.School leaver Kimberleycommented, ‘I worked really hard and the opportunity to prove myself in an exam has been taken from me. I no longer feel in control of my future.’
Many teenagers now feel under pressure because their final grades being decided by teacher assessment means that every bit of work they now do may count.
Even before the pandemic, worries about school tests and exams were right up there among the things that keep children up at night. And no wonder. In an education system focussed on targets and rankings, they are assessed almost as soon as they can walk: private nurseries have entrance exams and even interviews, and primary school pupils sitting SATs don’t take long to realize that the tests are measuring not just where the school comes in the league table but also where they come in the class order.
In secondary school, the pressure increases with frequent important tests and little recovery time in between. And itcontinues into further education. University applications have to read like CVs. As well as getting top grades, it seems people are expected to have zip-wired across the Victoria Falls, led a team out of the Amazon jungle, and run a small business enterprise from their bedroom!
Butas parents we don’t need to stand by helplessly wringing our hands at the pressures our children are under. The good news is that there is much we can do to help them build an emotional buffer against anxiety, not only about school and exams, but other challenges they may encounter on the journey ahead.
In particular, we can help our children develop a broad definition of ‘success’. While teachers are my heroes and school results are important, they are not the only metric of ability or achievement. In fact, our narrow definition of success is a significant contributor to the anxiety that many young people are feeling. As parents, we want our children to do well so that they have as many opportunities open to them as possible, but if we aren’t careful we can put them into a very small box where there is no room for creativity, individuality or exploration.
Whether our children are natural high achievers or need a hefty dose of encouragement to get motivated,there are practical things that we can do to help them navigate these pressures:
Listen and empathise. Keep communication open and offer reassurance. Ask open questions, listen to what their concerns really are, and show empathy.
Help manage their stress reactions. If possible, try to eke out some one-on-one time and do things that help them relax – for example, making biscuits together, playing a game, going for a walk. If they are feeling anxious, encourage them to take deep breaths and count to ten.
Find things to be grateful for. Every evening, ask everyone to think of one positive thing they are thankful for – for example, a fun game of snakes and ladders, a new TikTok dance, finishing a maths project.
Celebrate effort. Look for opportunities to praise effort and character not just achievement. Affirming a child’s character is powerful because it builds self-esteem and gives them the message that who they are is more important than what they achieve.
As the roadmap out of lockdown opens up,schools will, of course, want to put measures in place to make up for lost time in classrooms this year. But perhaps an even more important task is to bridge the gap in our children’s emotional wellbeing. As key as their academic results are, the most important A* is in emotional health. As parents, we have every opportunity to help them grow an emotional resiliency that will not only enable them tomanage the inevitable frustrations, setbacks, and traumas that come their way, but help them fulfil their unique potential.
Children are growing up with anxiety, uncertainty and low self-esteem, and the Covid-19 pandemic, bringing lockdown and yet more life online, has intensified these things. Parents can feel helpless to care for their children’s mental wellbeing. Help is at hand with Katharine Hall’s unmissable book, A Mind of Their Own.
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