Protective factors for a socially distanced village raising a child
Protective factors for a socially distanced village raising a child
The world is looking very different right now for our babies and toddlers. From tape draped across the swings at your local park to mask wearing grown-ups hurrying down supermarket aisles, pandemic-life has changed for all of us.
As a public hospital and state-wide Early Parenting support organisation, Tweddle has continued to provide residential and telehealth parenting support throughout the pandemic.
Parents and caregivers are worried about how isolation, working from home, child-care disruption and the added pressures of strained relationships and finances are impacting their mental health and the wellbeing of their families.
It’s comforting to know that leading paediatricians and psychologists have offered reassurance about the impacts of Covid-19 isolation on young children, citing the protective benefits of loving interactions with parents, siblings and even pets.
Tweddle Psychologist Jessica Chidgey recommended that parents not worry excessively about what their children are missing out on, rather that safe, nurturing relationships and healthy routines during lock-down and isolation are key to a child’s development. “Knowing that mum or dad are stressed and anxious is more of a concern to a baby or toddler than missing out on a few months of social interaction.” she said. “Impacts need to be seen through a lens of family-related risk and protective factors and these can be supported and enhanced.”
Research suggests that within a crisis and post-disaster situation, children’s psychological wellbeing would be impacted, at least in part, via the impact on parents, parent-child interactions, specific parenting practices, and family environment. (Cobham et al., 2016)
Dr. Jack Shonkoff, M.D., a paediatrician and early-childhood development expert at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child noted that children tend to be resilient and adaptable, and that is because children are biologically wired to adapt.
As families in Victoria and across the world adjust to and brace for second waves of COVID-19, there are a number of important protective factors that will help our babies, toddlers and young children ride the wave with us until we get to the other side.
To help on that challenging journey, Tweddle recommend the 6 R’s; Routine, Resources, Regulation, Reassurance, Recognise and Resilience. These are intended to scaffold children and families not only through our current pandemic, but through stressful times in general.
COVID routines aren’t your ordinary routines. It’s important to be realistic with what you can achieve during this stressful time. Flexibility is important, however routines help babies, toddlers and other family members cope with stress and feel safe and cared for, particularly in stressful times. Routines can help strengthen family relationships. For example, reading a story together before bed, making a weekly meal together or a daily ‘nature hunt’ walk finding certain shapes, colours and textures. Finding opportunities for fun is important because happiness breeds curiosity and imaginary play. Through play, babies and toddlers learn that the world can be safe, consistent and predictable, to develop trust and that feelings (both positive and negative) are acceptable. Play provides an opportunity for children to ‘play out’ feelings and problems.
There’s a lot going on right now. Feeling resourced in difficult times can help reduce anxiety and increase feelings of hope. During times of stress, practicing self-compassion will help ease anxiety. Children can pick up on your stress so try to develop a resources list to turn to when you need to fill your own cup. Feeling resourced means feeling connected to family, friends, community, services and resources. This could include:
- A list of telephone or online support contacts for mental health and wellbeing discussions
- A free audio book subscription such as Borrow Box
- Online resources that include a menu of support services like Tweddle’s Parent Info Hub
- Regular and routine Zoom/Face-time/telephone calls with loved ones
- Mindfulness meditation apps like Smiling Mind
- Join an online parenting group like Tweddle’s MyTime for parents of children with additional needs or Playgroup Australia
- Escape to Melbourne’s online zoo, one of Melbourne’s three museums, an MSO concert, a NGV art gallery or the State Library’s kids’ space
- Beyondblue’s Corona dedicated website offers online and telephone support
Emotional regulation is increasingly important during times of uncertainty, both your own, and helping your child to regulate their emotions. Children are “wired” to look to their caregivers to determine how safe they should feel. If their primary adult is calm, a child feels reassured. But if their adult is upset, the child can feel unsafe, and their body and brain can experience a stress response. Responding to a child’s needs calmly and consistently will help them to regulate their emotions, a skill they will use for life. Recognising a child’s emotions e.g. feeling angry or worried and encouraging them to share how they are feeling, teaches them how to identify and regulate their emotions by breathing and calming down. This is a valuable part of developing resilience. As adults, being able to calm down under pressure at home, at work or with a partner is an important life skill.
While we can’t control all outcomes, we can help our children feel safe through reassurance. This will be reinforcing that the pandemic is temporary, everything will be ok and that washing hands, staying home and grown-ups wearing masks will help everything return to normal as soon as possible.
For some toddlers and children, facial coverings are confusing and may even be scary. Remind your child that masks help to keep us and others safe. Explain to your child that masks are temporary and that people can still smile, talk and laugh in their mask. Clarify that little children don’t need to wear masks. Try to adapt your language to suit the age of your child and don’t provide unnecessary detail. When wearing a mask, eye contact is important for communicating warmth, empathy and understanding. Smile with your eyes as much as you can. Play peek-a-boo with your child when wearing a mask. If you have a paper mask, ask your toddler to decorate it with drawings. Remember that children under the age of 12 years do not have to wear a face covering but individual families can make their own decisions regarding their children. Children who are two years old and under should never wear a face covering due to choking and strangulation risks.
Remember to observe your emotions during the pandemic with non-judgemental curiosity. There is a big difference between saying ‘I am anxious’ and ‘I am experiencing anxiety’. One allows you to distance yourself from the feeling and acknowledging that it will pass. It’s normal to feel fearful, anxious or stressed right now. Share your experiences with relatives and friends, or contact a help line. If you continue to experience problems, try a telehealth consultation with a mental health professional.
Set boundaries for yourself. Boundaries blur when parenting, work, relationships and domestic chores occur at the same place, making it more difficult to get things done or disconnect.
Repeated exposure to the news on radio or television can have an accumulative effect on your stress reserves. Turn off distractions for extended periods during the day and evening to concentrate on things that help you to relax and quality interactions with loved ones. A sense of achievement can come from small victories, ie cleaning out that junk drawer, finally sorting through old photos or planting some succulent cuttings.
There’s nothing like a pandemic to remind you of your resilience. These difficult times are also opportunities to engender resilience in your children. So how does resilience look to a baby or toddler? Your resilience will demonstrate; “I can feel upset and recover, I am not alone, someone is here for me, I am worthwhile, I will try again, things will be ok”.
At Tweddle, an empowered parent will learn “things haven’t gone to plan today and that’s ok, I feel supported and confident to ask for help, I am a good enough parent and feel positive for the future. I can help my baby feel secure”. Through attuned parenting, a parent can demonstrate to their baby or toddler that things don’t always go to plan. A baby can learn about resilience through play; the blocks can be knocked down, I can feel sad, or angry, I can calm down and understand that it can be built again.
Tweddle extends our gratitude to the large network of Mental Health, Nursing, Early Parenting, Community Services and Local, State and Federal government staff working in partnership during the Covid-19 pandemic. Tweddle clinicians remain available to support families and look forward to services returning to normal in the hopefully, not too distant future.
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