March, Mental Health and Fear

As the weather in the UK warms up and we start to look forward to our children returning to school, many parents are beginning to look at what other activities we can pick up again following the recent lockdowns. After a year of restrictions, the prospect of a return to their extra-curricular clubs is undoubtedly welcome. However, I was struck by doubts when our school sent around 4 pages of supportive ideas to help get children happily back into the routine of going to school. At first, and I’ll admit, because my children seemed overjoyed and desperate to go back, I dismissed it. But then, after chatting to my 10 year old, late at night as he couldn’t sleep, I realised that my family was affected by fear.

I had noticed a slip in my children’s confidence over the last year, eroded and coped with on a daily basis, when faced with yet another upheaval, they were frightened. Gone are my confident, curious kids, replaced by hesitant, cautious, nervous ones. Homeschooling and the subsequent social isolation has weakened their resilience. Even, as it turns out, a return to the familiar environment of their school worries them now as they process the practicalities for next week. What if their friends don’t talk to them? What if they’ve forgotten something? What if it’s hard?

Much as I try and soothe away all their concerns, I know as an adult, the only real remedy is to give it a go, discover for themselves that it’s not as bad as they fear it might be. That doesn’t stop any of us being anxious though, but it got me thinking about what else parents can do beforehand to reduce the pre-game nerves.

Playing increases resilience

Fear is a powerful driver for us all – the fear of trying something new especially. With regards to the unknown, all these questions circle around, and can block out the rational objections we have. With sporting activities especially, there is also an element of danger – what if I get hurt? What if I can’t do it? With less resilient children, encouraging them to try something new seems even more daunting.

You many have seen in the new talk of educational catch up budgets, plans to try and boost away the missed learning. This might work for some, but I don’t personally believe it will help us regain the skills which fell by the wayside. We have been the lucky ones during lockdown, and I feel very concerned for those who have struggled with terrible obstacles in a prevailing climate of daily concern to just even provide for their children. For them, the return to a semblance of normalcy may be an even greater leap, welcome, but challenges facing many children will remain for long after their schooling recommences.

Our aim as a family now turns to restoration of what we have lost, not in terms of education, but more building back up our children’s confidence and resilience. This can only be achieved through a return to normal activities which challenge them like gymnastics, or playing with their friends, exploring new places and free play. It feels like it has been a struggle this last year to try and retain our children’s sense of wonder and curiosity when their lives have inevitably become so mundane and ‘local’.

Fear, and learning strategies for managing it, is a necessary part of building resilience.

So what can we, as parents, do to support our children as they spring back into this strange new world? Here’s my top 6 suggestions:

  1. It might seem obvious, but actively listen to your children. Just encouraging them to verbalise their fears can be cathartic. It enables you to discuss strategies for coping with what concerns them, as well as reinforcing that you are always there for them.
  2. Be consistent, especially with your messaging. Remember that learning involves repetition. This includes encouragement!
  3. Prepare them – some parents I know have been getting up and dressing their children ready in uniforms for the last week to get them back into a routine! But, even if all you do is take some time to sit and explain what is likely to happen when this new challenge arrives, it will help. This goes for all new experiences – and it is why now is the time for downloading Mitch and Mooch Try Swimming for free! Even if things don’t go to plan (like in the story), parenting is in essence about preparing our children for life, so give them a heads up about what ought to happen and how to deal with the unexpected.
  4. Talk about the What If’s. You could even role play what might be the right thing to do in your play activities. What if they are alone and don’t know anyone? What should they do, who should they look to for support if you aren’t there? Get them thinking about what resources they have to cope with their fears.
  5. Acknowledge the change. A child can grow a lot in their likes and dislikes over a year – we forget this because at the time its so incremental, but when we offer them a return to a previously loved activity from a year ago, it could be that they simply aren’t that person any more. And that’s ok. Try something else instead!
  6. Tomorrow (or the next time) is another day. Each day is an opportunity to try again, do better. In this, we can learn from our children who have the most amazing ability to bounce back. I am continually amazed by how one day my daughter’s attitude will be absolute refusal to try something, then next, embracing it with open arms! And vice versa of course.
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