Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: Supporting our children's emotional wellbeing

Our children have had the rugs pulled out from under them, during the Covid-19 pandemic. So how can we support their emotional wellbeing?
Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: Supporting our children's emotional wellbeing

By applying some simple mindfulness and positive psychology approaches to our parenting we can optimise the outcome for our children, so says Dr Michelle O'Driscoll.

THE challenges of the past few months have been numerous for us as adults, from coping with financial worries to adapting work practices, to navigating the uncertain terrain ahead.

Our children have had the rugs pulled out from under them too. They thrive on security, consistency and routine, but with schools and creches closed, it looks like most of them will have spent almost six months at home with those needs not having been met in a formal setting by the time September rolls around.

So, as parents who are potentially stretched to our limits, but also worried about how our kids are coping emotionally with this upheaval, what can we do? It is a challenging time, but by applying some simple mindfulness and positive psychology approaches to our parenting we can optimise the outcome for our children, increasing their resilience and activating their growth mind-set, while hopefully maintaining our own sanity at the same time.

Adjusting your expectations

Expectations at this time really need to be realistic. I’ve personally been guilty of spending many a work call becoming frustrated when my 15 month old daughter has picked the least appropriate moment to scream the house down. But is it realistic to expect her to play quietly while I sit at my laptop for a two hour block? Is it a bad reflection on me as a mother or her as a child that she’s making her presence heard? No! It’s normal, unavoidable, and although unfortunate it’s not the end of the world. Adjust your expectations of what you as a parent are capable of right now, and of how your child “should” be behaving – let go of that desire for perfection, because at the moment it’s neither realistic nor attainable.

The gift of presence

You may be feeling like a home-schooling failure and a parenting disaster, but if you strip it all right back, your presence is the greatest gift you can give your child right now. Apply the approach of quality over quantity by adopting the motto “when we play, we play.”

Carve out specific slots during the day when you’re deliberately not multitasking, but instead devoting your undivided attention to your kids for a period of time. This results in children that are more content and secure, having been acknowledged, seen and heard. And by giving them that quality time, your kids are much more likely to then be happy enough to self-entertain while you get some of your own work done. Win-wn!

Recognising your emotional hijacking

There’s no doubt that the juggle is real, whether you’re trying to home school an eight year old or occupy a two year old (or both!).

During those periods of frustration and overwhelm that you are bound to experience, try to avoid being hijacked by your emotions, and reacting from a place of anger or frustration. Your children will only see this and mirror it. Instead, see if it’s possible to pause even for just a second to acknowledge the emotion, but to then respond to the situation from a more rational place. It’s not always achievable, but when you succeed, it will result in calmer interactions, and more positive outcomes all round.

Naming and validating

And you won’t be the only one experiencing challenging emotions, as you’ve probably already realised! Outbursts and tantrums from your smallies may be appearing of nowhere and increasing in frequency. Children don’t always know how to verbalise what they’re feeling (we as adults need to work on this too!) and as parents we can help by acting as a container to hold those emotions for them.

Taking the time to see past the noise and drama to what is actually going on with your little one is really important. Listen to understand, ask questions, and help them to name what it is that’s bothering them. Is it frustration, loneliness, fear or boredom? Teaching children how to recognise and name their emotions is a life skill that they will carry forward beyond this pandemic. Teach them that these emotions are normal, natural and perfectly OK. Help them to identify healthy ways to work through them by keeping communication lines open.

The Strength Switch

As humans, we have a natural negativity bias, developed to keep us safe but which causes us to focus on the pitfalls of life events; the “lack of,” the “being less than,” the “not doing enough of.”

When it comes to our children during this time, it can be very easy to let that creep in excessively, focusing on all the school work they’re not getting done, the jobs around the house that they’re not contributing to, the good behaviour they’re not demonstrating.

Try instead to switch your approach to a “strength-based” outlook. Reward their creative artwork, acknowledge their moments of compliance and manners, praise their co-operation. Where focus goes, energy flows.

Focus on cultivating their strengths, and watch these multiply as they too learn to nurture these positive attributes.

Connection through affection

And finally, make sure that there are plenty of hugs, kisses and more hugs on offer.

We ourselves know the effect that physical contact can have in terms of reassurance, support and mental wellbeing. In these times of social distancing, when hugs and kisses from granny and grandad are being missed, and holding hands with friends in the school yard is a distant memory, replace those moments for your kids with an extra top-up at home.

It regulates the nervous system and dampens the stress response through increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol. Both you and your little ones will reap the benefits, and it will strengthen the bond between you.

As we begin to slowly emerge from this challenging time, we hope that the worst is behind us and that in the not too distant future our children can be children once again. Until then, we should remind ourselves that our young people are more resilient than we know, and will bounce back from this with the help of a little extra love and support from us.

You may be feeling like a home-schooling failure and a parenting disaster, but if you strip it all right back, your presence is the greatest gift you can give your child right now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a Lecturer of Clinical Pharmacy in UCC, while continuing to work in the community pharmacy setting.

Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through her company InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.

Michelle writes a weekly column in WoW! in The Echo every Wednesday.

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