Helping your children switch from ‘survival mode’ to ‘thrive mode’

As the lockdown continues, parents need to be empowered with right tools to handle their young children and adolescents

by Randima Attygalle

‘Why can’t we go out of the house?, When will school start? When can I see my friends again?’ these are some of the common questions parents are bombarded with during this lock-down. While it is natural for parents themselves to be anxious and stressed in this crisis hour, at the same time it is important for them to be empowered to make their young children feel secure.

“Children are affected by the mental state of people close to them, thus for children to feel secure, parents need to feel secure first,” says Dr. Udena Attygalle, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist from the Colombo South Teaching Hospital, Kalubowila.

People find situations that are unpredictable and difficult to control more stressful than other situations. The current emergency situation we are all going through has both these elements, he said.
 “The lives of children before this were more predictable and had a sense of control. For example, school on weekdays followed by classes and other activities and visits to grandparents on weekends etc. This routine is now disrupted and as the lock down continues and things become more and more repetitive; it could be more stressful for children, yet parents can help mitigate this with right tools.”

The psychological effects of an unpredictable and uncontrollable situation, he explains, usually depends on our understanding of the situation, its consequences, our perceptions on how it affects us and people close to us.
 “A four-year-old may not quite understand the danger of the situation but might worry about being unable to be with his/her grandparents. On the other hand, an eight-year-old having an understanding of death and illness might worry about her mother or father who goes to work at a hospital. An adolescent might worry about not being able to with friends or uncertainty about school or exams.”

However, this unpredictability as he further explains, might become less as newer patterns emerge on ‘how things are’ and as we adapt to ‘how things will be’. “As the child sees the mother/father coming back from hospital or any other work place safely each day or the trend of infection becomes more clear, than being unpredictable, the stress will lessen.”
Although it may be natural for people to be in the ‘survival mode’ short term, getting stuck in it for too long can be detrimental, taking its toll on children as well. Hence, switching to ‘thrive mode’ is imperative, says Dr. Attygalle.
 “Staying in a survival mode narrows our mindset. For instance, talking only about COVID-19 and its consequences will not be beneficial. Rather than talking about the virus per se, you can address their concerns first. For instance, convincing them that their grandparents are safe and that they can be reached everyday on the phone. Children have a lot of developmental needs and finding ways to help them while adhering to safety methods and taking precautions is very crucial. When explaining the situation, it is important to do it in a developmentally appropriate way. For example, children can be told that ‘We don’t want people we love to fall sick and this is how we can prevent it right now’.

Such ‘developmentally appropriate’ approach Attygalle notes, brings a sense of predictability and control into a conversation. At the same time it is important to foster a sense of optimism in children.
“Especially in a Sri Lankan setting, children should be empowered to realize that as a country we have been through similar crisis situations and we have overcome them with the passage of time. In this situation, they should be convinced that best practices of hygiene such as frequent washing of hands and social distancing can help us overcome the situation and give them some sense of control.”

A discussion of this nature with an adolescent will have to be more ‘adult-like’, yet addressing their concerns and helping them come up with a plan is essential, he says. “Moreover, adolescents can be powerful agents of change, thus discussing ideas on how to educate people about taking precautions against the virus, helping people in these difficult times, will give them a sense of control.”

Enabling a ‘normal day’ and thereby bringing in a sense of productivity during the lockdown is imperative, he said. Organizing a child’s day by getting them to wake up in the morning with a sense of ‘needing to get things done’ and going to bed in the night with a sense of ‘having done them’ can make a huge change in his/her daily routine, he adds.
 “For young children you can start with a list or ‘picture list’ of things to do next day which you can tick off as each task is completed. The list could be a mix of activities you can help them with and activities they could do on their own. The latter could be quite useful for parents who are compelled to work from home these days, so that a win-win situation can be arranged.”

When getting children to do their own tasks while parents may be occupied with their on-line official work or domestic chores, parents need to be mindful that the assigned task is neither too hard for the child nor too easy.
“The former will make a child give it up and the latter will make him/her get bored easily. Ideally such a task should involve seeing and touching. Drawing, making lego are some of the examples.” While organizing a day is crucial, having one of two ‘blank days’ like the usual Sunday with nothing planned is also encouraged by the psychiatrist.
Offering a few tips to parents working from home, Dr. Attygalle says: “While working, if your mind wanders and you need to take a break, stop what you are doing and just be with your children. During this time, don’t have ‘to do things’ in mind, but just be with them. Avoid asking questions or giving commands, but just be with them in whatever they are doing. This arrangement will make it easier for you to get back to your work.”

He further explains that preparing the child for your return to the computer/work is also important. “Once you join them for the break, tell him/her that you need to get back to work maybe in one hour or half an hour; then remind them of this in ten minutes and again five minutes before you leave, so that they are prepared for your absence. Then at the start of your next break reward them for doing whatever the task they were assigned to be done alone.”
The reward, Attygalle explains, could be a physical thing like a sweet, praise, physical touch, or spending ten minutes extra with them. However, the same reward doesn’t work for long, he says. “It has to be changed and in addition to the reward a child should be made to feel that he/she is really appreciated. Thus the value of the reward is really the value felt by the child.”
At a time like this, children can become easily bored and helping them navigate it is vital says Dr. Attygalle. “In cognitive terms, boredom happens as our attention needs to switch from a ‘wandering state’ (where we daydream or just allow our minds to wander) to a task-oriented state (where we need to focus on a task). This ‘wandering state’ allows children to self-reflect and feed on creative ideas. Boredom becomes problematic when one needs to do something task-oriented but does not have the motivation to do so. Children often become bored to study, therefore it is important to provide them different tools of motivation such as appreciation, fostering a sense of achievement and enabling family time after studies etc.”
Physically cut off from their friends, particularly children who are nearing adolescence and adolescents will tend to depend on digital devices for connectivity and entertainment. Excessive dependency could be detrimental entailing late nights and sleep patterns being disturbed. While digital interventions could help substitute face-to-face interactions in this crisis situation, excessive use could often result in parent-children conflicts as well.
 “While this type of digital connectivity can be included into the daily schedule, addiction could be detrimental,” observed. the consultant who discourages excessive use of social media for both connectivity and updates on the virus. He also encourages at least a weekly ‘screen free day’ where all in the family make it a point to stay away from devices. A planned TV time is also encouraged by him, The whole family can watch a programme or a DVD together, he suggested.
Children and teenagers could often become outlets of unintentional stress and anxiety of the parents who are home-bound these days. So responding patterns of parents should be modified, Attygalle said.
“Children being defiant in these times may be an attempt of getting some sense of control as they may feel that everything around them is out of control and insecure. Thus, they may attempt to control certain things within their reach such as refusal to eat, wash or study. Thus, sensing their needs rather than their actions and responding to them with empathy and taking charge of the situation may be ultimately more reassuring than parents becoming more emotionally uncontrolled themselves.”

With the lockdown weighing heavily on both children and adults alike, Dr. Attygalle urges parents to make use of this time to change the way children learn. “Rather than the time-restricted rule-based way of learning in modern life, it is time to allow them to learn by trial and error. Gardening and painting for instance can have these components.”
He further notes that having ample time in hand gives parents a chance to be ‘in the moment’ with children rather than in the past or future and to take delight in children for who they are and what they do. “A sense of being delighted is an experience that children rarely get these days but it is an essential developmental experience which is different to indulging them or being proud of them,” concludes the consultant.

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