Helping Young Children to Cope with Change

As parents and carers we want to protect, yet it is easy to think our youngest children are unaware or unaffected by events such as the Coronavirus outbreak. However, with mass news coverage, adults' conversations and anxieties, and changes to every-day routines it is impossible to shield young children completely despite our best efforts.

These significant changes and the anxieties surrounding them are likely to be experienced by people of all ages as loss, and the mixed feelings about the change, the threat, and the uncertainty mirror the grieving process; disbelief, anger, sadness, and anxiety are all completely normal. For bereaved children especially, this situation is likely to increase their sense of loss of their loved one and their fears about the future.

Young children may appear unaffected by loss and change, because they can only tolerate their difficult emotions for short periods of time, therefore they may be very anxious and upset one minute and then playing happily the next; this is known as 'puddle jumping'. Whilst for young children the concept of permanence of death is difficult to grasp, they will be acutely aware of separation, loss, and change and, in time, the realisation of the person not coming back. Furthermore, as awareness grows, it is common for young children who have experienced a bereavement to become worried about other loved ones getting sick or dying. In addition, children under the age of five tend to have 'magical thinking' whereby they believe their thoughts, words, or actions can impact on others, whether causing the death of someone or being able to bring them back!

Young children may ask repetitive questions as they try to make sense of what is happening, and they will apply their experiences to new situations – such as believing their loved one died because they hadn't washed their hands even though it was unconnected to Coronavirus for example. However, young children do not have the capacity to express themselves completely verbally and they are in the process of learning emotional regulation with the help of their caregivers. Therefore, at times of stress children's feelings are likely to be expressed as behaviours and all behaviour is communication.

Loss, anxiety, and fear can be displayed in a variety of ways from a child being tearful or clingy, regressing to a younger age, struggling to eat, sleep, or concentrate, or being angry or controlling. Whilst adults are managing their own anxieties about the Coronavirus and juggling social isolation, a lack of childcare, and working from home these 'attention seeking' behaviours are actually 'attachment seeking', as young children in particular, need connection with their attachment figure to co-regulate their emotions and help them feel reassured, safe, and secure. Even as adults we will often seek out partners, friends, relatives, or a professional therapist to connect, regulate our emotions and make sense of difficult experiences - and our brains are so much more developed than children's!

So, what can you do to help your child cope with the Coronavirus outbreak?

Switch off the news – with 24-hour access to global news on TV, laptops, phones, and tablets we are surrounded by constant information about Coronavirus and the shocking daily updates of the number of deaths around the world. Whilst we all want to be informed, be aware that even very young children in or around the room that the news is being broadcast will see or hear content and certainly sense the anxiety and panic, thus increasing their levels of anxiety and the potential for information being misunderstood by the young child.

Be honest, but age-appropriate – Whilst we don't want to overwhelm children with information not acknowledging the situation can increase their worries when they sense things are not quite right. Asking a child what their understanding is, is a good starting point. Giving a simple explanation, such as 'we need to stay home to stop the germs spreading so people don't keep getting poorly', reinforcing what you can do to stay safe gives an element of control 'that's why we wash our hands to clean the germs off', and reassuring 'lots of people are getting poorly but most people get better too'. Try not to give false promises about everything being 'ok' and 'no one they know and love getting sick' and remember it is ok to not have all the answers either. This Coronavirus situation might also prompt questions about the death of the child's loved one as they revisit their loss and try to make sense of it, so lots of reassurance and simple reminders about what did happen with their loss is important too.

Name It to Tame It – author and psychiatrist Dan Siegal describes this simple way of managing overwhelming feelings, as naming the feeling connects the bodily and emotional sensation of a feeling with the logical, thinking brain (naming your own feelings helps adults too!). Naming feelings helps children to regulate, gives them the language to identify feelings, and communicates that you understand them, for example 'I can see you're feeling really worried/upset/angry right now' or 'you want to throw things right now, I wonder if you're feeling angry' or 'you look worried, do you need a hug?' Offering reassurance, a cuddle, and an alternative means of expressing feelings (such as encouraging an angry child to stamp their feet instead of throw objects), or a change of activity may help redirect them after naming the feeling.

Routine – structure and routine offer children a sense of predictability and security. This does not mean you need to timetable their whole day, in fact unstructured free play is vital for children's development and well-being, but keep to basic routines of mealtimes, bath and bedtimes wherever possible. A simple picture timetable using clip art images may help to add a visual routine. If you are juggling working from home or helping older children with school work, factor in free play times for your child when you need to focus on a task, interspaced with times where you are available to read stories, do puzzles, or build with Lego together even just for a short time throughout the day if possible.

Connection & Attachment – we are biologically born to connect, and when we experience stress or threat, we naturally try to get closer to our attachment figure(s) to regulate emotions, to feel safe and secure, and ultimately to survive. Attachment and connection promote the release of the love hormone oxytocin and other feel good endorphins! It is very common in bereaved children especially, to see increased attachment seeking as a direct reaction to their loss, such as separation anxiety, clingy behaviours, and developmental regression where children revert to earlier developmental stages such as wetting/soiling, needing help with dressing or eating, or having 'toddler tantrums'. The additional changes and anxieties about Coronavirus and children's fears about further losses, or themselves becoming ill will likely be heighted in children who are already grieving.

It can be tempting to encourage children to be independent and do things for themselves or to ignore unwanted behaviours but instead increasing opportunities for closeness and nurture can help meet your child's attachment needs, reducing their anxiety, and in turn decreasing the unwanted behaviours and facilitating their independence when they are ready. Connection and attachment with your child is about spending time together and offering physical and emotional closeness through playing, drawing, making, baking, talking, singing, hugging, rocking, soothing, sitting close to share story books, and remembering their loved one through memories or photos.

It is understandably not possible to be with your child all the time so verbal reassurance that you will be back and a form of being 'held in mind' can ease the separation anxiety. A child's special toy or blanket will offer reassurance and comfort, or you could try a teddy with your perfume or aftershave,a toy swap (you look after one, while the child takes care of another), or a 'hug button' a heart drawn on yours and your child's hand so they know whenever they press the hug button, they can think of you and you will be thinking of them, and you both get a virtual hug!

Play! - play is children's occupation, play aids physical and social development and learning, but play is also vital for children's mental health and well-being (in fact older children and adults also need playfulness such as hobbies, crafts, sports, singing, dancing etc. to support their mental health!). Through play children can explore and 'play-out' their feelings and experiences, they can revisit and rehearse real life events, they can take control of how their play narrative ends, and they can escape into imaginary worlds. Play and stories give children a safe emotional distance to make sense of their world.

Play can also help to regulate the nervous system in children and adults alike, releasing endorphins, and expelling stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol – which is why being physical when angry helps! Sensory (appealing to the five senses) and messy play can also be very soothing for children from baking and water play (whilst washing up!), to hand and finger painting, playdough or slime or gloop - try mixing cornflour with water for a quick and easy gloop, or make home made playdough in a variety of colours or scents, and have fun!

Claire O'Brien, Mosaic Play Therapist

Playdough Recipe

250g plain flour

50g salt

140ml water

1 to 2 tablespoons cooking oil

few drops food colouring or scents (optional)

  1. Mix together the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the water and oil.
  2. Knead well until mixture is smooth about 10 mins. You might need to add a bit more flour or water until the consistency is smooth but not sticky.
  3. Add food colouring and knead until the colour is fully blended.
  4. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until chilled enough to use

Thank you to ​Claire for putting this together for us

Teenagers in Lockdown
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Monday, 25 May 2020

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