Blog post

Helping children overcome their isolation worries

The spread of COVID-19 and the lockdown response across the world is a strange and worrying time for families, and children perhaps most of all. Dr Frances Maratos, Associate Professor of Emotion Science at the University of Derby, offers suggestions of how to help children manage their feelings.

By Professor Frances Maratos - 3 April 2020

With the reality of Covid-19 hitting home, and the realisation that you, your children and other immediate family might be self-isolating for some time, you might find that worry is beginning to set in and your children are becoming increasingly anxious.

It may be that your child or children are becoming worried about you or other family members potentially getting ill. Or it may be that they are becoming fearful/scared about you leaving the house, or even going into the garden or around the block to exercise. So, what can you do to help?

Understanding fear and threat processing

The first thing is to understand that the worry your child is feeling is perfectly normal. Just like a cat cannot help but chase a mouse, it is in our nature to attend to and process threatening information. For thousands of years, this ability to attend to and process anything that might be a threat has not only kept us safe but has potentially kept us alive. As such, our threat system is the easiest emotion system to 'trigger' and can dominate our behaviour. Politicians know this.

At election time, fear is a very powerful motivator. However, what we need to do - and help our kids with - is to make sure that the threat emotion system is kept in check/balance. We can do this by trying to ensure that we do not introduce more threats/stresses into our children's lives and, secondly, by trying to redress the balance between emotion systems, including helping them to re-focus attention toward more positive emotions. Below are three tips that may help your child achieve more balance between different emotions, potentially lessening their stress and worries.

Maintain a routine

When life and events become unpredictable and uncontrollable, our stress levels increase. This is true for children too. With schoolwork potentially not being sent over the Easter holidays, you might think this is a good opportunity to relax and not schedule any activities. However, children need routine. It gives them something controllable and predictable in their lives. Of course, it doesn't have to be schoolwork (we may all now need a break from home-schooling!) - but scheduling fun activities, as well as free play, every day will allow for stability.

It could be family time to watch a film together or read a book together, or weed the garden as a family, or play that board game you hate (in our case Monopoly!). The thing is, it doesn't matter what it is, as long as your child knows that things are scheduled for every day (or on a daily basis) and that they are going to happen. That gives them something predictable and controllable in their lives.

A cuddle goes a long way

When our children are first born, we emotion-regulate for them. When they cry, we pick them up and soothe them by rocking. As they get older and better able to express their behaviours and articulate their frustrations, we sometimes forget that they are still children. Indeed, maturation of the frontal lobes (the so-called seat of reasoning) actually continues into early adulthood. So, when your child is angry or frustrated, as long as you are not self-isolating, try offering them a hug or a cuddle. Even teenagers will feel the benefits.

Indeed, touch is one of the most important ways we can soothe ourselves and others, it helps to regulate the release of stress hormones, and stress hormones are a cause (and consequence) of threat emotion/system activation. Of course, hugging a favourite teddy or stroking a beloved pet can also work. So, if you are at your wits' end, remember it's not always you that needs to provide the support... and your teenager may prefer the dog at any rate!

Redress emotion system balance

Aside from the threat system, we also have emotions associated with wanting and achieving, as well as feeling safe and contented. These are related to two positive emotion systems, and so if we can focus on these systems, that can help to regulate threat emotions.

So, what does your child get excited about? What can you introduce on a daily basis that will increase their pleasure?

For example, in a bid to include a stable routine, our activity on Sunday morning was painting stones (the Derbyshire Rock craze). My children were excited about this, as they knew we'd be hiding them on our afternoon walk later. They were equally excited when they spotted other stones that people have painted and hidden.

Hand-painted rocks
Hand-painted Derbyshire Rocks

In this way, everyone gets to feel a little bit of happiness or pleasure. But it doesn't have to be this. It could be playing snakes and ladders, baking a cake together, singing on the karaoke, having a keepy-uppy competition, whatever it is that your child (and potentially you) find pleasurable.

As an alternative, or addition, is there one time of day when you can reflect on something good/positive about the day? In our house we call it 'grateful for'. At teatime we all have to think about one thing from the day we are grateful for. Again, this is a great way to 'train' your child's attention to positive events and help create balance between the different emotion systems.

And, finally, even though we all want to watch the news be wary of how much you are doing this when your child or children are present, especially if they are already quite anxious, scared or worried. Unfortunately, present news stories may well act as a trigger for their threat system (although it is good to see more positive stories being covered). And - as it is this system we are working to regulate - the less we can trigger it in present circumstances, the better.

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About the author

Academic Frances Maratos, smiling.

Professor Frances Maratos
Professor of Psychology and Affective Science

Frances Maratos’ research informs applied emotion regulation, compassion and wellbeing interventions worldwide. She is widely published and has excellent grant capture. Frances is the exiting Chair of the College of HPSC Research Committee. Her Professorial appointment reflects not only her international research profile but also her longstanding commitment to the University.

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