Is this normal?
If I had a dollar for every time someone's asked me that! With all the changes that we have experienced in the last couple of months, trying to work out what's normal and what's not isn't easy. While we adjust to new things, whether that be at the supermarket, grabbing a coffee, seeing family and friends, at work, even walking down the street. For the time being, things need to be done in somewhat of a different way. So, while there's no clear-cut guide for what's normal and what's not during a time of such upheaval, I offer the following as signposts, with mental health and positive wellbeing as the destination.
While many children may be excited at the prospect of lockdown restrictions lifting, others may feel mixed emotions. It's normal to feel stressed, worried, or anxious during times of change, and each of us uses various strategies to cope in these times. While the underlying mechanism is the same in all of us (i.e., a danger is detected, and a response generated), everyone experiences stress differently. We've learned different ways to respond. You will likely notice that even within your household, each member has and will continue to respond in their way. In regards to the young people that you care for, some will adapt quickly. Some will ask lots of questions; some may experience difficulties with eating or sleeping; some may act out, become anxious, withdraw, or feel angry or agitated. You may even see some regress to behaviours they haven't done in a while, like being overly clingy or wetting the bed.
As parents or guardians, you know your children best, and so in the coming weeks, you are well placed to notice any changes that they may show. You may ask yourself whether these changes are healthy. The following are provided as indicators to be alert to (but not alarmed by) in the coming weeks:
- Reluctance or refusal to go to school
- Increased clinginess in the morning
- Increased tearfulness/ sadness
- Poor sleep on nights before school
- Temper tantrums/irritability on school mornings
- Feeling sick (e.g., stomach aches, headaches, and other aches or pains related to muscle tension)
While we may be tempted to see these as attention-seeking or an effort to avoid school because it's merely 'easier' staying home, we need to be mindful that these behaviours are part of a built-in, adaptive system to protect us and keep us safe. Additionally, a recent poll by KidsHelpline indicated that 39% of young people weren't feeling ready to return to 'normal.' So, if your child shows this through their words or actions, they are not alone. However, if your child's worry or sadness/irritability is impacting their day to day life (e.g., stopping them doing things that they enjoy, is significantly higher than you would expect, lasts longer than you would expect, or they have been sad or irritable most of the day for two weeks). You are encouraged to seek mental health support by contacting your family GP or the counselling team at Woodleigh. Additional support is also available via Kidshelpline, Headspace, YouthBeyondBlue, ReachOut, and Parentline.
How to assist your child in returning to school:
- Talk to them about the virus (but only when you are physically and emotionally able to do so). It will help them make sense of things and help them to understand their emotions and the rapid changes they are/will be seeing.
- Ask your child what they're looking forward to about returning to school, what they think might be different, and what they're expecting.
- Validate any fears and correct any apparent misconceptions.
- Problem-solve with your child- come up with a few possible solutions together
- Listen to their concerns and worries and name the emotions that you hear
- Use your feelings as a way to model that we all feel worried or unsure sometimes.
- Be honest (it's ok if you don't know the answer)
- Focus on hope
- Talk about what's being done to keep people safe and what we can do too
- Use language such as "when you go to school" rather than "if you go to school."
- Discuss school procedures a few times before your child returns to face to face schooling (i.e., you'll still be doing lots of handwashing, your teacher will still be using the hand sanitiser, this is what you'll do, this is where you'll go).
- For younger students, be especially mindful around any "kiss and go" arrangements as children may react strongly if they are expecting you to walk them to the classroom door.
While we may not have been through this experience before, every community and family has faced challenges (big or small). When thinking about the current situation, we make use of how we have overcome these previous challenges. The strengths we needed to bring to the fore, the values we kept in focus, the internal and collective resources we accessed, and what worked well for us in the context of our family. By using our previous experiences, we provide ourselves with an anchor in these unfamiliar circumstances, we ready our minds for change, and we settle those worries.
As we return to face-to-face schooling and adjust to new routines, your child's response(s) may change. Keeping a check on our young people's mental health and wellbeing will be vitally important. Continue to check in with them, notice changes as they emerge, talk to them about what you're seeing, and if you're concerned, reach out for support.
Educational and Developmental Psychologist