COVID-19 & Your Kids:
Adapting to the New Normal
What does it mean to be a child? What are their roles in life and how do they feel fulfilled and gain a sense of purpose? What exactly are the things that children need to do in their everyday lives? These are the central questions for an Occupational Therapist when looking at how best to help improve lives of the children they work with. When faced with challenges of any sort, be it accident, injury, hospitalisation, loss of confidence or mental trauma, inevitably there will be changes in a child’s ability to engage in activities and changes to their everyday roles. There is great value, therefore, in considering the impact of Covid-19 from an Occupational Therapy perspective - to look at what these changes mean for our children and how their new circumstances will affect their roles in life and their engagement in activities and relationships.
A New Normal
COVID-19 has introduced not least a new virus; but a new way of life for all of us. Children are spending their days at home in a way that is alien compared with their usual routine, with loss of school, loss of extra-curricular activities, loss of trips out (even to the shops!), and loss of ‘in person’ contact with friends and extended family members. Parents will be concerned about the effect this may have on their children’s development, their physical and mental health as well as their family’s wellbeing. An additional and lingering challenge of this virus is the uncertainty around when life will get back to ‘normal’, or if we will ever go back to that normal. Are we looking at a new normal? It seems 'a given' now that many logistical aspects of our lives will be altered more permanently, and we have no choice but to adapt.
Supporting Our Children
Children have many roles in their life which give them meaning and a sense of purpose - they are sons/daughters, cousins, grandchildren, playmates, pupils, learners, helpers, growers, friends, siblings, ballerinas, runners, climbers, artists etc. etc. What we must remember with children is they are internally programmed to fulfill these roles and to develop and grow, not only physically, but emotionally too. The challenges of life rarely thwart these drives and, if we can support our children during this period with clear and containing messages and boundaries, we will allow that innate drive to continue. During covid-19, we can help our children to find new ways to fulfill these roles and to, more generally, engage in activities of everyday life that give them purpose.
Here are some top tips to help address the occupational challenges that covid-19 present for children:
- See the current occupations of your child as valid and see how they can still perform their previous roles (e.g. as son/daughter, playmate, learner, ballerina) through different means and with differing emphasis, and enable them to use both their own existing skills and assistance from you to adapt to a challenging situation.
- With home schooling – try to be less of a teacher, and more of a learning supporter. As long as they are fulfilling their role as ‘learner’ in some way, this is all that matters. Remember that there are multiple ways to learn (not just the ones taught in schools) and that real life learning is valid too. This time is an opportunity to look at learning through doing (which is harder to do in a school environment), which may well work to some children’s strengths. Use activities like cooking, gardening, cleaning and daily chores as opportunities to learn and enjoy a new role. Learning through doing is central to Occupational Therapy philosophy and allows the full range of learning styles to be utilised, such as kinaesthetic learners (children who learn best when moving or doing). Children will be able to get back to their normal learning soon enough, and you may well have a new wealth of information to share with their teachers about what you noticed about your child during this time. See this time as a way of doing things differently, and not necessarily to your child’s detriment. If parents promote the positives of this phase, children will learn to remain positive and be open to learning and adapting.
- The loss of school is an obvious change in role, but try to look out for other losses - perhaps your child has a very invested role as a sportsperson or in a particular hobby? Or perhaps they are very invested in a role as a grandson or as a step-sibling? Try to think of ways they can fulfill these roles in different ways and connect them with the activities, hobbies or relationships that form a firm part of their identity.
- Try to maintain clear daily routines such as mealtimes, shower times, dressing, play, and home-schooling timetable. This will help give them purpose and drive.
- Keep moving; don’t stay still for too long. Avoid long periods in separate rooms, exercise together and eat healthily; use this as a time to try new recipes and share ideas about what the child would like their week to look like. This will help your child retain a sense of purpose and control over their daily life.
- Sleep routines are always vital but especially during this time. Set alarms to get up, avoid daytime naps and late nights. Everyone will benefit from this in the family.
- Encourage your children to keep in contact with their friends and wider family through socially distanced versions - Skype, phone calls, FaceTime etc., and talk about other family members, so that they know they are still around and can look forward to resuming contact when possible to do so.
- Filling the day can understandably be hard with children, who notoriously become bored very easily. On boredom, use this period to allow your children to experience boredom, it can lead to creativity and is an essential part of child development. We are used to busy timetables but it’s also vital that we and our children have unstructured times where we can reflect and maybe learn to be content with little to do (children with special needs may find this trickier but it is still worth a try). In my experience your child may struggle ‘in the moment' but in the longer term it may be useful for emotional growth.
- Talk to your children about what is happening but be careful not to overwhelm them with too much information (for example, constant news updates). They need to know the social distancing rules, that we have a virus in the country that can make us poorly and, in some cases, could cause us to go to hospital where most people will be treated successfully, but some sadly will not. Remember they are not used to seeing as much news, so limit this as if routines were as before, e.g. evening news before dinner if that was your previous norm. It is the adults’ role to manage the anxieties that COVID-19 has given our families.
- Finally, play and fun! Play is the natural occupation of the child, it’s at the very root of their educational journey and will enhance their enjoyment of learning and growing all round.
The Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT) provide online advice for parents who are socially distancing and isolating with children. www.rcot.co.uk/staying-well-when-social-distancing