“You can choose your friends but you sho' can't choose your family,” wrote Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird, in an often-quoted line from her classic novel. Nor do we have much choice with whom we are spending lockdown, while social distancing measures are still in place. But while we may wish for greater choice, Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown argues that we can develop a fresh appreciation for family members if we develop the skills to express and acknowledge our emotions in this difficult period.
It’s not surprising that some families find that tensions grow in close quarters. “Families are having to find ways of living together that they are entirely unused to, when many of their usual ways of coping have been taken away,” says Professor Stewart-Brown.
“But if families can use this opportunity to get better at relating healthily and managing conflicts creatively they will come out of this period with understanding and skills that will make life altogether more enjoyable in the future. And the adults that those children become will be better equipped than we are now to cope with unprecedented times in the future.”
Children feel things more acutely than adults
“Children are very sensitive to the emotions of others,” explains Professor Stewart-Brown. “Very young children feel these deeply and cannot express what they feel. So they will be aware of the fear that many people are feeling and will be affected by it. They will also be aware of the many tensions that arise in homes where parents are trying to adjust to living in a very different way and at the same time cope with fears about finances or relatives from whom they are isolated.
“While older children are able to reason, young children do not have the language or cognitive skills to tell others what they are feeling or to understand cognitive explanations. Primary school children’s reasoning tends to be black and white: something is right or wrong, other people are good or bad. Adolescents start to manage a more nuanced approach to life. So how you talk to your children and what you expect of them in terms of understanding and reasoning varies with age.”
Children: What is going on is not your fault
To children at home at the moment, particularly those missing school, Professor Stewart-Brown says: “This is a strange time. Your parents and brothers and sisters have not been through anything like this before. They are trying to find out how to do it just as you are. They may also be worrying about granny or grandpa because they can’t go and see them and they might get sick. Or they may be worrying about money and how they are going to cope.
“So see if you can cut them some slack. They are probably trying to do their best even if it doesn’t feel good to you.
“Most importantly, please understand that what is going on is not your fault.
“It may be that this is a time you can help your parents. You may have been taught about healthy relating or dealing with conflict at school. You may have been taught how to relax or be more mindful. Perhaps you know how to do Yoga. Your parents probably won’t have had these lessons. See if they might let you teach them some of what you learnt.”
Adults: Deal with your emotions first
For parents, Professor Stewart-Brown espouses the ‘aeroplane principle’. “Unless you attend to your own needs first, you are no help to your child. Some adults respond to fear with anger, others by becoming controlling, blaming others, becoming more dependent, or isolating themselves. The more frightened they are, the less they are able to control these reactions.
“What is needed is for you to calm down, regulating your nervous systems in whatever way works for you. If you can calm down, get yourself out of anger or dependency, your children will calm down with you.
“Children may react in different ways. Some may need the reassurance of cuddles and attention; others may start acting out and behaving in ways that are distressing for you, others may cut off, seek solace on their own and refuse to come out of their rooms - much the same reactions as adults have.
“These are all normal reactions to fear. What children need is for their fears to be recognised and allowed and met with sympathy. For conversations to be had, not about behaviour but about feelings. The principle is that all feelings are acceptable, but behaviours that have their origins in these feelings are by no means always acceptable and parents may need to establish clear boundaries around some behaviours, with age appropriate consequences for misbehaviour. Not all feelings can be made better, but they are more easily borne if shared with sympathy. The more it is possible to articulate and own difficult feelings the less they drive behaviour.”
Learning the skills of self-regulation
“In every home people are having to work out how to live differently and for this they need to be very good at negotiating who will do what and when with whom and how,” says Professor Stewart-Brown.
“Difficult emotions met by others with understanding and sympathy allow the skill of self-regulation to develop during childhood so someone in meltdown can bring themselves out of this. Because this wasn’t well understood when most of us were children many adults are not very skilled in this now. So when we get gripped by fear we respond much like our children. And we need the same help children need. To be met with understanding and sympathy.
“Some school-aged children are now being taught the skills of conflict resolution and negotiating with emotional literacy. These approaches aim to respect feelings before moving to solutions. People learn to say what they feel without blaming others. They learn to take responsibility for difficulties they have inadvertently caused others, even though they can’t necessarily rectify them.”
Advice for children
- Remember: What is going on is not your fault
- This may be a time to cut your parents some slack. They may be trying hard even if it doesn’t feel as though they are getting it right.
- Practice any skills you have learnt at school which help you calm down and negotiate what you need well
- Ask your parents if you can have family meetings where you are all allowed to suggest ways to solve everybody’s problems
- See if your parents can remember how to play and have some fun
Advice for parents
- Give your own nervous system the soothing attention it needs, then pay good attention to your children and how they are feeling.
- Turn to your children and ask for their help. See what they know and what they can offer. They may have been taught how to do mindfulness or other ways of relaxing. Have family conferences and allow everyone to contribute ideas.
- Doing things together is really valuable and important: getting creative, making music, listening to stories, taking exercise. All these things are necessary and can be planned into a day – but attending to feelings first will make a big difference to how enjoyable they are.
19 May 2020
Sarah Stewart-Brown is Professor of Public Health at Warwick Medical School.
She is an expert in measuring and monitoring mental health and wellbeing with a special interest in determinants of mental wellbeing, interventions to promote mental health and wellbeing, parenting and parenting programmes, complementary and alternative therapies and child public health.
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