David Coleman https://davidcoleman.ie/ is the author of this article – originally published in the Irish Independent.
How are you surviving your enforced family time?
I think many of us are finding it more stressful than we imagined. At first it may have seemed a bit like we needed to plan for the kids as if it were a school holiday, but the level of social distancing required has meant that few of things we normally do during holiday times are feasible.
The fact that we must currently forbid, social gatherings for our children may also be provoking some nervousness for parents, as we worry that all of this isolation may impact on our children’s sociability and the social and emotional development that is usually promoted by hanging out with, and playing with, their friends.
Even if we arrange to go for walks and come across other families we know, we have to keep at a distance that prevents the usual running around, hugging, tumbling, or horseplay that might occur in their play together. So, in their play, they won’t have any of the usual physical closeness that they might have enjoyed with friends.
There is no doubt that the next while (possibly months, as we are now coming to realise) will be testing for children as they will miss out on lots of social interaction with their peers that they would normally have had. No birthday parties, no sleepovers, no playdates, no knocking for friends, no organised sports. It feels like a very significant loss.
I never thought I’d see myself write this, but suddenly technology and social media has real value for our social communication. While it is a different form of social connection, it does now play an increasingly important role in allowing our children and teenagers to stay in touch with friends, while maintaining the social distance needed to slow the spread of Covid-19.
While there is no doubt that this new social etiquette will impact on how we and our children can physically connect with our friends and extended family, the social distancing that we must practice, doesn’t have to lead to an emotional distancing, or disrupt children’s emotional development.
It is still really important, unless you are feeling unwell or need to socially isolate (because of where you’ve been or who you’ve had contact with), that we maintain physical closeness in our families. Our children still need loving touch from their parents. They need hugs, foot rubs, strokes and cuddles. Touch is such an important part of our social experience that our children cannot do without it for months.
While our children may not be able to play with their friends, we can still promote their emotional development. In fact, if we are all thrown together at home, for extended periods, there is more opportunity than ever to help children to learn about their feelings, to express those feelings and to process them healthily.
Empathy is the mechanism by which we help children to develop, emotionally. Life will provide children with the experiences that will provoke emotions. Our job is to help them to make sense of those emotions.
The best way to understand what I am talking about might be for me to explain using an example. Let’s imagine you have a nine-year-old son, who is, by now, bored with being at home, restless, and perhaps cross that he can’t meet his friends.
If he comes to you, pleading, again, to be allowed to at least meet his friend just for a few minutes, many of us may have lost patience and may end snapping back at him that he “just can’t” and to “stop moaning, stop asking, let it go.” While this is a natural response to our own frustration and stress of trying to manage the strange circumstances we find ourselves in, it does little to help our son deal with his feelings.
If we can manage to regulate our frustration, a better response is to say something like, “You sound really desperate to be able to see your friend. I’m guessing it is really disappointing that we have to keep apart from people we want to spend time with. You may be really cross that this virus seems to be spoiling our lives.”
There are a few things to notice about this response. The first is that we haven’t asked any questions about his feelings. This is because he is only nine and so he may feel put on the spot if we ask questions. If he doesn’t know how he feels, he may actually get more frustrated by being probed, since he will experience the social expectation that he “should” reply.
Secondly, we don’t assume to “know” how our son is feeling. We are just guessing how he feels. So the “you sound desperate…” and “you may be really cross…” are phrased as statements and, importantly, they leave room for us to be wrong.
A third thing to notice is that the statements don’t try to fix the problem created by social distancing, they simply recognise and help the child to identify, more accurately, the feelings it may create.
A fourth thing you may have spotted is that the phrasing not only tries to guess at his feelings, but it also tries to guess at what may generating those feelings (“this virus seems to be spoiling our lives”).
Sometimes we can be reluctant to do this, fearing that we may put ideas in their heads. However, we usually are very attuned to our children and if the thoughts are likely to be there already then it is very helpful for us, adults, to name those thoughts and feelings. If we are wrong, children still value the fact that we are trying to understand and may then be able to verbalise their actual feelings or thoughts, knowing that we have opened the door to these kinds of important conversations.
There are no easy solutions to the problems or frustrations that our new way of interacting requires. But helping children to understand and voice their feelings will also help them to develop socially and emotionally.