Self-regulation during times of uncertainty, change, and added stress can be tricky. We all like to feel like we have some amount of control in our lives, and there is definitely comfort in routine.
From major health concerns and financial worries to missed birthday parties and summer vacations, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our lives and those of our children in countless ways.
Youth Counselor and children’s book author Stephanie Scott is here to offer her expertise on how to manage heightened emotions in our homes, how to teach safety precautions without inducing fear, and how to approach the new school year next fall.
This school year ended in a strange way for many children across the world. They didn’t get to say goodbye to their teachers or friends, and now this summer will likely be very different from what we had planned.How can parents help children deal with disappointments such as cancelled vacations or summer camps?
This school year definitely ended in a strange way for many children. First off, children may show a range of feelings from joy and excitement to confusion and sadness over missing an anticipated event. They may feel a loss of control over their environment or their world. Parents can help children deal with disappointments such as cancelled vacations or summer camps in numerous of ways. It is important that even though parents may have shared disappointments, that they are managing their disappointments in healthy and constructive ways too. This provides an opportunity to help children cope constructively as well. Lead by example, stay calm and try to set a more positive tone with the schedule. You may share how you are enjoying the extra time with your child as you can bake more or do fun science experiments.
When breaking the news of cancelled events, honesty is the best policy to avoid eliciting feelings of mistrust or resentment in your child down the road. Do not promise them that you will be able to reschedule. Instead, allow them to release their emotions, validate their emotions and give them comfort in knowing that they are not alone. Parents can share how other children or friends may be experiencing something similar. This will help your child take the cancelled events less personally. You can find ways to modify the missed activities or event so it can be creatively executed at home.
It’s okay to let them have time alone to be creative and innovative with their free time. Allow them opportunities to problem solve on their own, rather than having you fill in every bit of their schedule with activities.Stephanie Scott
Labelling your child’s emotion, for example “that must be so disappointing,” helps them to be heard and understand what they are feeling. Children who feel cared for, heard and understood will find it easier to bounce back. You will then strengthen a child’s confidence and ability to problem solve. They get a chance to put a missed or cancelled event into perspective, with how they see others tackle a difficult situation. Where you may be disappointed as well, add some sense of humour and explain how you are absolutely so excited to have extra time to organize your office! Your child is more likely to remember how you respond to their emotions and also will recognize your efforts to make the situation better for them.
Remember, it is healthy for children to acknowledge and process their disappointments. It’s okay to let them have time alone to be creative and innovative with their free time. Allow them opportunities to problem solve on their own, rather than having you fill in every bit of their schedule with activities. When a child’s emotions are really starting to be disruptive or outside their norm, it probably is time to give some direction to them. Be present. Focus on the now, and what you can do for enjoyment in the home or even through supporting your community. Being active outside and getting fresh air will help provide a change of scenery.
How can parents encourage safe practices like extra hand-washing and social distancing without inciting undue fear in our children?
There are ways for parents to encourage safe practices like extra hand-washing and social distancing without inciting undue fear in their children. Talk to your child about what is going on around them in relation to safe hand washing, and social or physical distancing. When you do have a discussion, follow your child’s lead. See what they know and work with that information.
Don’t over indulge in information which can increase their fears and stresses. It may lead your child to be fixated or make assumptions. Be mindful of the adult conversations you have in front of your child and limit your child’s media exposure. Try watching kid-friendly YouTube videos together on handwashing and social distancing, if you are unsure of what language to use or how to appropriately explain the topics. Books can also act as a great starting point to create conversation and awareness around these topics.
Make sure your child understands their hand washing routine. Develop the routine to be fun, frequent and help them understand the expectations such as washing your hands after going outside, before meals, etc. Show them how to do it properly: using soap, warm water, and time. It also helps when parents set an example by washing their own hands frequently.
However, be aware of how you respond if you notice that they forgot to wash their hands. Have hand sanitizer on stand-by as an alternative. If you start panicking for unknown reasons to your child, this may induce fears in your child. Try making a game out of it, to see who can get the most soap bubbles on their hands and between their fingers. There are so many scented soaps, or soaps with various characters on it that will encourage children to use it, and may be a positive distraction from the reason as to why there are extra hand washing protocols to follow.
Children will likely miss the opportunity to interact with their friends, grandparents and even teachers. They may not have a full understanding what social distancing means. Children may also face various temptations but need gentle reminders about why social (physical) distancing is in place. Where possible, try to offer video calls with friends or family members, so they have that reassurance through their own eyes that others are in the same boat and are following similar protocols or rules. Also, it puts your child more at ease, knowing they are doing just fine.
Instead of waiting for your child to complain that they are bored or start arguing to see their friends, get ahead of behaviour and create opportunities for them to engage via video calls, email, or apps. Schedule time for these important interactions. Explore coordinating with other parents to create a virtual book club, science experiment, fashion show or even a bake off. Create a scheduled time for friends to do online gaming. Whether or not your kids fully understand this new normal, keep emphasizing what they can do or are doing to keep themselves and their family healthy: frequently washing their hands and engaging in social distancing. This gives them a sense of control during a time that can bring chaos.
What do you recommend parents do in the heat of the moment when their child has an emotional outburst?
I would imagine as a parent, that teaching a child how to cope with emotions can be quite complex. Parents may feel powerless or even exhausted from their child’s emotional outbursts. Children may have more emotional outbursts is due to an inability to communicate their feelings. Try to help your child explore safe and positive ways to communicate their needs.
If the severity of the emotional outburst is very low, you may want to ignore it. You will have to gauge if the severity level changes. Remain calm to prevent the situation from escalating. This also models emotional control, instead of fighting fire with fire. Try to be patient and positive. For a child to be able to manage their emotions, it may take some practice and coaching to obtain the skills needed to help regulate on their own. Managing your own emotions when things get heated will make it easier to teach kids to do the same. Speak calmly and set out clear expectations.
Sometimes all a child may need is a reminder of rules to regain composure. For example, “I know you’re upset, but use your voice to tell me what you need.” You may provide instructions like “go to your calming corner and squeeze your squishy toy,” or “please calm down and show me you’re ready to talk, so I can understand you.” In this way, you’re guiding your child back to acceptable behavior and encouraging self-control.
Also, it is helpful reminding your child about consequences, what will happen if they don’t calm down. For example, “if you don’t calm down or lower your voice, then you need to go to your room until you’re able to talk nicely.”
If your child is in the middle of an outburst, give some space but let them know you are still present and available. Don’t push too hard to get them to tell you what they are upset about while they are still in the peak of their emotional outburst. Once your child has de-escalated, then find out what’s wrong by using a time-in to explore your child’s needs and solutions. Where your voice may be triggering, simply point to where you would like them to go, or hand them over a calming tool or Kleenex as a cue to calm down.
In your calming corner you may have some calming bubbles, a story about self-control and emotions, or even a sketchpad for them to draw or write out what they are experiencing. Remind your child to talk to you without whining or yelling. Do not engage with them if they continue to yell or whine, as we want to teach them that they can gain your attention through calm behavior.
Of course, as parents we are not perfect either. In times of stress and uncertainty, we may also react with impatience or aggravation. In this case, what should a parent do next?
We are only human. We have emotions. We are not perfect and can’t be or give 100% all of the time. In times of stress or uncertainty, parents may react with so many emotions since parenting at any time can be challenging. What’s important is that you take responsibility, own up to your emotions, and show how you will better manage those difficult feelings.
When stress levels may be higher than usual for both you and your child, taking care of yourself is vital. By taking care of yourself, you are not only helping yourself be the best caregiver you can be, but you are also modelling healthy ways to regulate emotions to your child as well. Take breaks from reading or watching news stories that can be quite consuming and weigh you down.
It is entirely reasonable to feel anxious, aggravated, distressed, confused, impatient, and frustrated at times. It is a normal part of life which is good for children to know. Try paying attention to your emotions and your thoughts. A child can be especially sensitive to their parents’ moods and may take on your stress. Figure out what is triggering it. Try taking a break or a step back from interacting with your child if you are not in control of your emotions. For example, you may say “I am feeling upset right now and I can’t be as calm as I would like to be if you want to play a game together or need something from me. First, I am going to take a break in my office to settle down. Then, I will come back and play when we are both ready.”
It is okay to feel those emotions and have those moments where we lose it, but be mindful of how you manage those difficult times. Be honest with your child about how you’re feeling and talk about a healthy strategy you’re going to use to feel better. Use terms that they will be able to understand.
Your child may notice the positive ways you’re choosing to ease stress. You may want to even ask for their help, when appropriate. You may want to say, “I am feeling yucky today. It’s been a long day at work. Would you like to go for a walk around the block with me later? That will help make me feel happier.”
Or, you may ask them to teach you a helpful strategy they use when they feel sad or yucky. If it is a more long-term stressful situation that impacts your home life and relationships around you, you may want to have a brief age-appropriate conversation with your child so they have an understanding of what is going on, rather than having them resort to making their own assumptions. Again, reassure your child what you are doing to make the situation better.
While some children will be thrilled to return to school in the fall, how can we help children who are reluctant?
While some children will be thrilled to return to school in the fall, there are many ways we can help those children who may be more reluctant. Children may be more reluctant for numerous of reasons. Perhaps working on school work from home was easier for them, than it is working in-class. Perhaps, they fear the unknown due to the pandemic, of what the school year may look for them, or fear that the school will get shut down again unexpectedly or suddenly.
Children thrive off of boundaries, consistency and routine.Stephanie Scott
Demonstrate empathy—that everyone is ‘still’ in it together, as they were during the extra time at home. Clear communication and planning together is crucial. Children thrive off of boundaries, consistency and routine. Try to create and practice a school routine prior to the start of the new school year. That way it’s not a drastic change or a struggle, and allows your child to have a smoother transition, while acclimating to the new school year. You can create more of a ‘homeschooling schedule’ with your child, so it increases their interest in participating. Thus, they will take more responsibility, which will boost their confidence and self-esteem. Ask them what time they think break time, snack time, homework time and even recess time should be incorporated at home.
Cross days off on your calendar to help your child better understand when the new school year starts. Talk to your child frequently about what to expect in the upcoming year, as you may receive updates from school or their teachers.
Ask them about why they may be reluctant. It’s the simplest tip, and perhaps the most important one to help reduce your child’s anxiety. If your child is not one to discuss their thoughts or feelings to you directly, try playing a board game or do a craft together, and indirectly start creating some dialogue.
Put together a scrapbook or an ‘All About Me Book’ that your child would be proud of and want to share with their new classmates and teachers. This can be a recap of what they did during the time away, show pictures of what their ‘at home school station’ looked like, or even have a section where the child can communicate to their new teacher if they have any worries or any strategies that they find are helpful in overcoming that. You and your child can identify and share areas where they may require some additional support during the transition back to school. This will help your child be heard and understood by their teacher, and help set the child up for success.
You may consider tapping into counsellors, school psychologists, and tutors even, to help create a support team for your child for when they return back to school. Perhaps they may be able to provide some check-ins, provide your child a mental-wellness break or simply just listen to them. By creating a support team both at home and at school you would be able to gather feedback and observations in both settings, in regards to how your child is managing their behaviours or even academics, and be able to determine if they are just responding to stress and the transition back from a long break. However, make sure that your child is aware and understands the use of their support team.
Last, but definitely not least, try to relax. All children can pick up on their parents’ anxiety. If you can keep yours in check, it will reflect through the behaviours of your child. Remember children will need some time and space to readjust to school-based learning again. It is important to be prepared to spend more time focusing on their social and emotional needs first, so that way they will have more success in the area of academics. Respect their pace and learning styles. Make them feel safe and in control.
Can you tell us a little about the idea behind your first book, Buckle Up: A Child’s Imaginary Journey About Self-Control?
Life can be challenging at times, and unpredictable, with ups and downs and all sorts of things we can’t control. For example, times like today as we face a pandemic. It’s like driving a car on a bumpy road. We can’t wish the bumps away. We can’t control who travels those roads with us or make the sun shine on our journey if it’s a rainy day. But we can control how we feel about it. We can let it make us angry or sad or scared; or we can stay calm, accept the challenges, and make good decisions.
That’s what Buckle Up: A Children’s Imaginary Journey about Self-Control is all about. With Nini the bird as your special guide, you will take a driving journey in your imagination, a road trip in your mind, with you (the reader) in the driver’s seat. You’ll learn how to face life’s obstacles and disappointments with healthy, positive “green thoughts,” and wait patiently for the rainbow that will surely follow the rain. I have shared various blogs and free printables for families and educators on my website, to support children and youth with their social-emotional learning. Some of the worksheets and activities compliment Buckle Up. This book is targeted towards children between the ages of 7 and 10. However, with the interactive and colorful illustrations, children of younger ages can enjoy it, along with an educator or adult to guide them through.
Do you have any other advice for parents this summer?
3 p’s: be present, prepared and patientStephanie Scott
During times like today as your child may display various unpredictable behaviours, it is important for a parent to remember the 3 p’s: be present, prepared and patient. Encourage positive behaviours by giving praise for any efforts. Children rely on you for co-regulation until they are more independent and capable of regulating their own emotions.
Children are sponges and mirrors, so be sure to model healthy and positive behaviors and responses to difficult emotions. This will create a safer and more comforting environment to help your child navigate through what they are experiencing in their world, while taking charge of the situation better. Most importantly, take care of yourself. Remember, you are able to take better care of others, when you take care of yourself.
Visit Stephanie Scott’s website for more information.