By Guest Author 02/04/2020


Dr Kirsty Ross

Children and young people can respond differently in times of distress. This also varies by age and developmental stage, with younger children having more magical and imaginative thinking, and older children having more awareness and knowledge of the issues our communities are facing (which brings up a lot of emotions for them).

So, depending on age and temperament, children can show their distress and adjustment through different behaviours and emotions.

  • They can become a bit clingier and need more attention.
  • Others can become irritable, grumpy and on edge.
  • Others may regress in their behaviour (such as starting to wet the bed, wanting to sleep with their parents or talking in a more childlike way).
  • Some may be more anxious and express a lot of fear and worries, for their health and the health of others close to them.
  • Others can try to seek a lot of information (ask a lot of questions, reassurance-seeking), in the pursuit of trying to understand and feel secure.
  • Some may even pretend nothing is different (avoid talking and thinking about it) as it is too difficult and scary.

All of these responses are attempts to feel secure, gain a sense of control, and manage emotions in the face of a very difficult situation for everyone – including adults. Noticing any changes in your child’s behaviour, emotions and interactions with others is vital – pointing out that you have noticed a change, and asking more about it helps children know that in the midst of a crisis, there are adults paying attention to them, looking out for them, and keeping boundaries around them, which helps them feel more secure. Acknowledging this is new and challenging for all of us is important; being kind to ourselves and each other as we adjust is key. Feeling a sense of some sort of control and retaining some familiarity in our days helps us gain a sense of direction. In the midst of many choices being removed for us, having some choices during the day is still important – even if it is what jersey you wear today, or what order you do your schoolwork in!

I have seen some excellent articles which acknowledge that this is not just ‘staying home on the couch’ and I agree with this. For many, this time of being at home in our bubbles involves sacrifices emotionally, physically, spiritually and interpersonally. Validating that this can involve a sense of grief and loss is really important; people need to be able to mourn the loss of how things used to be, and it is ok to be anxious about what comes next (not just once the rāhui has lifted, but as the world re-settles into something that may look quite different). Sharing these feelings helps people to feel they are not alone, but it is important that people do not ramp up other’s distress by catastrophising. Looking to previous coping and resilience (as individuals, whānau, communities and nations) helps us to see our strengths that we can draw on in these times of uncertainty.

Validating children’s emotions and empathising helps children feel understood and less alone, which helps reduce their distress. This involves helping them name how they are feeling, understand that these feelings are in response to a very new situation, normalising those feelings and ensuring that people know no feeling is ‘wrong’ in this situation. But, it is also vital that you keep some things predictable and consistent – including having chores, the same family rules and values, routines and consequences for behaviour. Validating and empathising with feelings does not mean children have free reign to behave as they please. Some testing behaviours can be a child’s way of checking out whether the rules still apply and, genuinely, they feel reassured to know that breaking the rules means the same consequences!

However, some flexibility is also key here, rather than rigidly sticking to how things have always been done. This is a situation none of us has found ourselves in before; so whereas you might have had clear limits on device use previously, understanding that this needs to be loosened somewhat to enable children to stay connected to their friends, teachers and things that are meaningful to them will help your sanity (and theirs!). Keep communication and connection going by asking what they are doing online – ensure they are not looking at information that is inappropriate, or that they might find overwhelming or frightening. In the absence of information, children will fill in the gaps with their imagination or information that comes from less that reliable sources. If they have questions, you want them to ask you first, and if you don’t know, then you look for accurate and helpful information together, rather than having them search the internet alone, or rely on friends for information. Young children will not require a lot of information, so don’t overwhelm them with too much – just the basics (there is a virus in our community that can make people really sick, so staying home keeps the virus from being able to move around and helps us stay well). Give a piece of information, answer any questions and ask if there is anything else they need to know. Some reassurance, calmness, routine and familiarity in their day (and distraction) is key for younger children.

Don’t get too caught up in keeping school hours during school term – there is excellent advice from educators around this, in terms of keeping things going, but also seeing other opportunities for learning that are more ‘real life’ (such as doing things around the home with you, like cooking), or involve learning together (such as watching documentaries together). Have some overarching goals, but flexibility and creativity in achieving these is helpful right now. Talk to friends about how they are doing things with their children and use your parent and school communities to share ideas and keep connected. Remember, define success more compassionately right now – if everyone is fed, has achieved something meaningful during the day and has maintained their health and wellbeing, that is a good day!

We all need to feel we have some degree of control – so think about this for your child in layers.

  • Things they can do for themselves: wash their hands, stay close to home, listen to adults, keep their bodies as healthy as possible.
  • Things adults (especially their parents) can do to keep people well: parents listen to advice from the authorities (medical and government), ensure we stay within our bubble, and keep themselves healthy so they can take care of children. It can be helpful for children to know that there will always be adults to take care of them – so if one of their parents did become ill, there would be another adult(s) who will care for them. Children are pretty savvy at understanding what is going around, so saying “We won’t get sick” will not work with children once they get a bit older as they know there cannot be any guarantees. It is better to say something like “The chances of getting the virus are small, but if we do, the chance of getting really sick is not high, as most people our age get it mildly and recover. But if we did get sick, you would be looked after by…” Many young people I know are aware of the risks for older people and those with underlying health conditions, so have fears for grandparents and older people in their whānau. So, feeling they are doing something useful by staying in their bubble is key. We want people to be able to accurately understand a situation, but not feel helpless or paralysed, that there is something meaningful and useful they can do to help.
  • The Government is looking after us by listening to scientists, who are looking for vaccinations and treatments to fight the virus. We have closed our borders so the virus has less chance to move around – this messaging is key, as it makes it clear that the virus is the problem/enemy, not people! So, we stay home so that the virus cannot travel, and if it cannot move around, it will run out of places to spread.
  • And remember, in times of crisis, there are always heroes, and children need to see those positive stories, and the stories of people who recover.

During times of crisis, children do need reassurance and calm reactions, so it is important adults are able to model good coping strategies. These include:

  • appropriate information seeking, from reputable sources, but also limited in time and quantity of information sought. This leaves more time for positive, meaningful activities with those we care about.
  • looking after your physical self – eating well, keeping your body moving, sleeping well, keeping hydrated
  • keeping in some sort of usual routine
  • keeping your brain occupied – reading, music, schoolwork, television programmes, YouTube
  • keeping social connections going
  • taking some time to find a rhythm and balance between routine and flexibility.
  • balance time apart and time to connect – it is normal to get one each other’s’ nerves a little without a break from each other!
  • trying to maintain the threads of your life (things that are meaningful and important) so they are easier to pick up again when we are able to. Life is like a rich tapestry and this is a time to reflect on things you can let go of that may not seem very important moving forward but it is vital to keep hold of the things you will need to carry on with and that are important to you, even if we hold those threads more lightly that we normally do.

As the initial novelty of the situation wears off and people’s tolerance wears thin, signs of distress or discomfort can emerge, and so keeping the lines of communication and connection going with your children is really important as they may adjust well initially (with some excitement and even enjoyment of having extra time at home), but find it more challenging as time goes on.

Finally, if you as an adult are struggling, please remember to engage in good self-care, ask for support, talk to your friends and whānau and be kind to yourself. In order to help our young people, you need to have the energy and resources to be able to respond to their needs and that means looking after yourself too!

Dr Kirsty Ross is Senior Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at Massey University, Palmerston North