Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari
The World Might Be in Crisis But the Children are Content
During uncertain times, even the strongest of relationships are tested. With so many changes to family routines, from home schooling and financial stress to worry for vulnerable family members, it is no surprise that now, more than ever, couples are reaching out for therapy.
Previous clients are getting in touch to ask for temporary support and new couples are finding the situation too challenging to handle but the silver lining to this cloud is that children’s anxiety levels are reported to be lower than usual*. This significant finding, which is consistent amongst most parents that I have spoken to, is even the case for children who normally experience high levels of anxiety**.
How is it possible that while adults are trying to cope with one of the most challenging and stressful times of their lives, children’s anxiety levels are notably decreasing?
There are a number of factors that we can attribute to this positive finding so let’s take a closer look into what children are experiencing now that they lack during ‘normal’ times and importantly, what do we need to adopt once the crisis and lockdown are over?
4 principles for children’s well-being:
1. Parental presence As a parent myself, I am aware of how busy you are with work, cooking, cleaning, and home-schooling your child. Yet despite all of this, your child is experiencing your physical presence. Parental presence is one of the fundamental principles that enhances your children’s wellbeing. Our busy lives have replaced parental presence with specific and time-limited ‘quality time’ and we have forgotten the importance of parental presence per se. Your physical presence plants the basic need for safety and an emotional anchor for your child. There is great value in child-parent ‘quality time’, but it is no less important for a child to occupy themselves while a parent is engaged in something else nearby.
Lockdown has created two ‘parental presence’ opportunities that are rare during normal times. The first is that when parents work from home they spend less time commuting which leaves more time to spend with love ones. This results in more opportunities during the day for spontaneous connections such as a quick hug, as well as planned household activities, like cooking together.
The second is that due to social distancing requirements, parents are also now at home in the evenings. Whether it was going out with friends, staying late at the office or just avoiding going home for one reason or another, now there is no way out. Couples are being forced to stay in and figure out their own relationship while spending time together as a family. And the big winners? The children.
Tip for post-lockdown: Parental presence comes in many shapes and forms. The ideal is to balance ‘quality time’ presence (for example playing or reading together), with just being together. Good examples of ‘just being together’ would be you and your child reading your own books together on the sofa, cleaning or cooking together, working alongside a child who is entertaining themselves, taking your child to work and so on. In addition, there is a special feel for family dinners where all around the table share the joy of food and the company. Decide with your partner (or other relatives in the case of a single parent) how many times a week you want to devote to family dinner together.
2. Time to just ‘be’ Children in the 21st century are ‘over-scheduled’ from a very young age. Many children by the age of 6-7 already attend after-school clubs for dance, coding, swimming, cooking and gymnastics, not to mention tennis, horse riding, piano, third language, skiing and obviously some after-school tutoring just to make sure they are in line with the school curriculum. This trend is rooted in the parent’s very best intentions but after a day at school a child is tired and overloaded, physically, emotionally and intellectually. Often children just need time to recharge and relax. We never truly know what our child has had to cope with during their day and after school they need the space and encouragement to just ‘be’. For example, to play with siblings, relax by drawing or to learn how to entertain themselves, without screens. It's not a bad thing to be bored, it encourages creativity but somehow in recent years parents have become scared of their kids being bored. Our own parents had very little issue with it and we benefitted as a result.
These days, with home-schooling and social distancing children have regained that precious time. The pressure to perform and compete for the teacher’s attention and approval is reduced and some children are free from peer pressure or peer dynamics that create tension for them. Instead they are learning in their own pace and time. We, the adults, need to remember that children learn in many different ways. They learn by playing, cooking, creating, wondering or simply following their passion. Children are born with a natural passion and curiosity, which we deprive (albeit in a well-meaning way) by over-scheduling their after-school time.
Tip for post-lockdown
Leave some afternoons free to just ‘be’. Less is more. Reduce afterschool clubs for Year 1 children and above to once a week and schedule a playdate once a week, or twice a week for an only child. For the rest of the time, trust your child to find their passion at home.
3. Learning their importance
By being at home and participating in age appropriate family responsibilities, children not only learn new skills but importantly they learn that they are important and significant to the family unit. This gives a sense of belonging which is crucial for any age and fundamental for healthy mental wellbeing. Don’t be intimidated by sibling conflicts and fights. This is also a great opportunity to learn social skills, negotiation, patience, and problem solving. Even teenagers who might be missing the security of their social lives, craving some physical distance from parents and mainly needing their freedom to develop their identity, can benefit from this time. This uncertain time teaches them about family values and responsibilities, the importance of being able to adapt, being an independent learner/thinker and becoming emotionally and cognitively flexible.
Tip for post-lockdown
Many parents that I have spoken to have told me that they are learning so much about their children during this time. They are learning about their abilities, flexibility and resilience and also finally, that less really is more.
Give children of any age more responsibilities at home. Where it is age appropriate, they can be responsible for: their own space, helping with cleaning, unloading the dishwasher, folding and collecting their clean clothes, being responsible for matching the family’s socks, looking after pets, babysitting younger siblings and so on. The more children are involved at home, the more capable and valuable they feel and the more resilient they will become.
4. Stress-free mornings Most parents are only too familiar with the morning rush. Waking the children up and encouraging, sometimes forcing, children to do everything quickly so that no one is late for school or work. More often than not it ends up with frustrated parents dragging their upset child on a fast and stressed walk to school. This morning storm leaves parents and children alike emotionally exhausted. The way children feel after a stressful morning is no different to how you would feel if you had to leave to work after an argument with your partner. It’s simply impossible to perform to the best of your abilities when your day gets off to a bad start.
These days, during lockdown, children have a little more time to sleep and they get to stay in their PJs a little bit longer. They can finish all their morning tasks at their own pace and start the day calmly.
Tip for post-lockdown
Wake the children up 15 minutes earlier to allow more time to get ready. Avoiding screens in the morning helps children focus on completing their morning tasks and mentally prepares them for their day.
Needless to say there is great value in school life, and many parents are praying for schools to re- open once again. This article is not suggesting that home schooling is a better option. There is significant importance to interaction with different teachers, being exposed to larger social circles, taking on new responsibilities and learning to negotiate and to develop standards for learning. But until the school’s doors are open, many of these skills can and should be implemented at home.
*It is important to note that I am referring to families with no history of abuse. The latter, unfortunately, are at greater risk of deterioration.
** Please do bear in mind that every child is different. If your child is showing signs of stress and anxiety during this time it is entirely normal and expected, especially if parents are worried about finances or vulnerable family members or if the news is on a lot at home. If this is the case, please do reach out at email@example.com for free resources on how to support your child during uncertain times.
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor and has been the Chair of Imago UK since 2013.