Younger children have worries too
I have mainly written about older children and teens in the past few weeks, and I am not alone. There are lots of great resources being put out there for school age children and teenagers. But looking at my 5 year old this week, and listening to parents of a pre-schooler, has made me focus on the younger children.
I, along with many others, might have assumed that pre-schoolers have less to be anxious about at the moment. They aren’t missing school, because they don’t go. Their worlds are generally much smaller than the rest of us anyway, not physically, but in terms of scope, number of people they interact with and what they can hold in mind and care about at any given time. So in some ways, lockdown may not seem such a challenge for them.
Centre of their universe
But, they are also the least equipped to understand it. They don’t get what we are talking about. They have no fixed concept of time anyway, so the suggestion that they might focus on “all the nice things we can do when this is over” is totally meaningless to them. They are also pretty much egocentric. The universe really does revolve around them. That isn’t meant in a critical way, they just haven’t got the brain capacity to think very much outside their own box most of the time.
Something isn't right
There are some upsides to this limited brain power. They tend to be more easily distractable. They tend to be good at focusing on the right here, right now. If right here, right now involves a chocolate biscuit, a hug with mum, a really good game of tractors in the sand pit or an excellent episode of ‘Hey Dougee’ then they may well be entirely content. But, they can’t plan for later. They can’t remember that it was only a few weeks ago that they last saw granny and it might only be only a few before they do so again. They do know and remember their routines. They may not be able to tell you that nursery happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but they sure as hell know when they don’t go to nursery that something is wrong with the world. Talking to people on a screen has not yet become any sort of acceptable proxy for sitting on their lap. And ‘friends’ are people you dress up in pirate costumes with, sit next to in the sandpit and build castles with, or occasionally wrestle with for the best dinosaur in the box. They are not people you ‘chat’ or ‘gossip’ with. Silent zooms are not useful if you are three.
World gone wrong
Young children are still likely to be feeling upset and ‘stressed’. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t quite the same things that we adults are stressed about, it still counts. They won’t be very articulate at explaining what the problem is. They may have absolutely no idea what they are feeling or why. The world is just wrong. As parents, you are the people that normally fix it, and quite frankly you are doing a rubbish job of that right now! And if you as the child are the centre of the universe, there is also a niggling doubt that what is wrong with the world might be you, and you have no idea why or what you have done to deserve it!
So, even our tiniest of people need some extra care right now.
1 Be patient – easy to say, hard to do, but bear with them. Ride the emotional storm for them in any way you can and enjoy the moments of calm.
2 Give them your attention – they need you, and they need you without your phone/screen/emails. Try to give short bursts of really focused, total attention. 10 minutes fully theirs with nothing else going on is better to them than half an hour of you vaguely present but looking at your phone.
3 Don't expect too much – young children often ‘regress’ a bit when they feel under pressure, and may not be able to cope with demanding things like sharing or taking turns in the way that they might in other circumstances. Try not to be too demanding of educational achievement but focus on active learning and play.
4 Keep busy - but don’t let them get totally bored, be active, it doesn’t have to be ‘educational’ for them to be learning. Children at this age find all sorts of ways to learn through play and exploration. Boredom will make them irritable. Whilst a little boredom can be good for stimulating imaginations, too much can be frustrating.
5 Keep it fun. Offer one or two activities, not a choice of 12. Focus on sensory stuff, physical play, comfort – try messy play, building dens, snuggling, reading stories on laps.
6 Keep any sense of normal that you can – every family is making this work the best way they can for them, so this is not a plea for sticking to routines or ditching routines, it is a gentle suggestion to stick with as much of what is normal for your family as you can in this very abnormal time. Total unpredictability is unsettling.
7 Plan stuff on a small scale if you can – try talking about each day at the end of the day. Review what you did and pick out the highlights (even if you remember 3 hours of screaming, try to help them notice the fun and the play!) and think about what you might like to do the next day. Are there any of the good bits they want to do again? Any suggestions of things they might like to do?
8 Find practical ways to express their feelings – make things for Granny if they are missing her, hug the teddy she brought and get it to send love to her, have Uncle Steve read a story. But also accept that it might feel wrong and they might need to show you that by shouting, crying or running away from it.
And know that however it goes today - you are managing in a tricky situation and that one day, these tricky times will end. In the meantime, keep doing what you are doing because it is so important.
Best wishes to you and yours,
Dr Helen Care, Clinical Psychologist