Support Children's Mental Health this Winter
I am a play therapist, a primary school teacher and a parent. This blog post has been written based on my experiences in each of these roles.
Children have had school closures, restrictions on who they can hug, who they can play with and lots of new routines and rules to get used to in school.
Some of the changes in schools include adults wearing masks, parents not being allowed in, no assemblies, different lunchtimes, cold classrooms and corridors, I could go on. The exact changes experienced in school by your children don’t really matter, the point is there have been a lot of changes – fast.
Changes can be unsettling. The ground can feel insecure under our feet. Changes out of our control can make us feel like we are being ‘done to’. When we feel ‘done to’, we can hold on tight to things that make us feel safe. We might see children becoming upset when the day's snack isn’t what they expected, or when a game with their friends isn’t going the way they want. When events like these are things children can’t cope with, they are a call for help. A shout for our understanding and empathy. Ask yourself what is beneath the behaviour:
When a child is experiencing big emotions, when they have lost the plot and cannot regulate, the adults around them need to share their calm. I went on a teaching course where ‘cold prickly feelings’ and ‘warm fuzzy feelings’ were discussed. When you get close to someone surrounded by ‘cold prickly feelings’, and focus on their feelings, it is easy to feel the cold and feel the prickles and become cold and prickly yourself. If you can separate the child from the feelings and share your ‘warm fuzzy feelings’ with them you can calm them.
Whatever your role, try to see the child, not their emotion and not their behaviour. Really see the child. When you can see the child it is easier to empathise with them. It is easier to stay regulated despite the emotions flying around you.
There is an excellent RSA Animate by Brené Brown where she explains the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathising with a child is not fixing the problem, it is not taking away their pain, it is not punishing them for reacting ‘badly’ to something. It is hearing and acknowledging the hurt and when the child is more regulated, enlisting their help to find a solution to the problem.
Just as you try to separate a child's emotions and behaviour from them, try to do the same with yourself. You may feel embarrassed, angry or disappointed by their behaviour. Own those feelings as your own and deal with them later.
As this very long calendar year, and a term like no other, comes to an end, give yourselves a break and remember everyone is exhausted. We are managing our expectations surrounding Christmas, whether it is the lack of parents watching the nativity or the possibility of having to isolate over the winter break. We all need connections and starting with the children in our class and our own children is an important place to begin.