At the age of four, a child’s understanding of the world is reconstructed on a daily basis. They come to understand everything around them through the interactions that they have, so what if we suddenly cut off a huge amount of that interaction? What will the results be? How long will they last? Will there be a life-long impact?
A colleagues’ son turned to her last week and said, “Mummy, does no one like us anymore?” This heartbreaking understanding of isolation demonstrates how much our youngest children are impacted by this, and the importance of them having a simple explanation as to why life has changed so much. Clearly I am not suggesting that they are made aware of the full horror, but they need to know that there are some nasty germs around and that we are all working together to stay safe, by staying at home and not seeing any of our friends for a while. Doing the germ conducting experiment (Using pepper – google it) will enable them to understand, through a practical example, how easily germs can be spread, to give meaning to what you say.
Remove the pressure. Don’t worry if they watch TV more than normal, and be aware that their behaviour may spike. Young children struggle with change, and this can be displayed through unexpected outbursts, which need to be met with love and understanding. Try to stick to a routine as much as possible, albeit a new routine, as this will enable the children to find new ‘solids’ to cling onto.
In terms of long term impact for our youngest children, experts in the sector are actually viewing this as a positive. Our children need plentiful adult interaction, love, safety and time to explore in the early years; which many are getting in abundance during this time, and in excess of that they normally receive. They will return to the world having tried new things, having spent quality time with their parents and having played – and let’s not forget that most of children’s learning in the early years comes from play. Without their normal patterns for play, the children will create new ones, and recreating and thinking anew forges new brain pathways in our youngest learners, so this time may in fact lead to increased mental capacity as they get older.
By the age of seven, children start to form firmer friendships, and the social impact of this isolation period will become more intense. They will long for the chance to play with their friends, and to spend time away from their parents. Alongside this, fear creeps in at this age, and they will be absorbing not only their parents anxieties about Corona virus, but also all the snippets of information that they overhear. We must be careful that, in hiding them from reality, they don’t construct something much worse from the small extracts they have. My advice is to be honest with this age group, again with sensitivity, but tell them that this virus is very dangerous and that, sadly, some people will die. It’s important not to hide from that because, try as you might, they will overhear this somewhere, and that can be much worse. Reassure them that you are following all the rules in your family and that you can keep them safe, and all those that they love.
It’s important not to underestimate the importance of social connection at this age. These children don’t have access to social media which, despite our normal loathing of it, is providing a strong sense of community for adults at this time. Consider how many children your child might have the chance to interact with during the day, and see if you can increase it. Play dates via FaceTime, or video chats with grandparents are important; as is the chance to conduct these without a parent nearby. They need to talk on their own level, and often the embarrassment of a watching parent can shut this off.
Stick to a clear routine. Keep bedtime and wake up at the same points and provide consistency in your approach. Don’t worry if they act irrationally at some times, or if their behaviour regresses – they are under an enormous strain too, and you should be proud of however they are managing. Don’t be afraid to relax the rules a little here too; in the wider scheme of things, increased time on electronics won’t matter, as long as they are kept safe and happy. In terms of the longer term for this age group, there is less speculation amongst academics, but it is clear that they will have been key witnesses in an astonishing historical period. Encourage them to keep a simple diary where you can, which they will be able to look back on with their grandchildren. This will also embed a sense of belonging in something wider than themselves, which can help them to feel grounded in the madness.
As children reach the age of 11, the strains become more visually apparent, and less is hidden beneath the surface. Children may demonstrate clearly the signs of their struggle by acting up, and lacking self motivation. They may lose interest in food and activity, or they may suffer from mood swings. However, many children at this age also feel a weight of obligation to stay ‘happy’ for the benefit of their families, so do not miss the potential trauma hidden beneath. There is no doubt that the pre-teens and teens are hit extraordinarily hard by the impact of isolation. They exist in a largely social world at this age, and the chance to spend time with their friends is central in their well-being. It is important to relax rules about use of social media, phone time and other modes of interaction, as these really are forming a life-line for children at this age. Routine will continue to benefit them, as will engaging in family activity, and an increased level of understanding and compassion. Get active whenever you can, and encourage the children to appreciate how exercise can help them to feel. If you can, there are chances to turn this time into a positive experience for your pre-teen. If they emerged able to cook basic meals, complete simple household chores, with new exercise routines and with a sense of intrinsic motivation, they would have benefited considerably from the experience.
There is no hiding the reality of Covid-19 from this age group, so be open and honest. Discuss the news candidly, rather than allowing your child to dwell on it behind closed doors. Talk to them about how it makes them feel and articulate how it makes you feel. A sense of shared challenge will help them to appreciate that they are not alone, although they may feel acutely lonely. This is also a core opportunity to develop strength in your relationship with your child, which may not have been so possible in busier times.
No matter what age your child, you should be intensely proud of them at this time. Their whole world changed overnight, at a time when they are already growing, developing and coming to understand the world in different ways. The corner stones of normality have tilted far further for them than for us, as adults.
One day we will all look back on this period in time and remember it. We won’t remember the arguments, or the amount of time we were bored, but we will remember the family moments that happened, and the sense of community that we manage to create. Embrace that now, and cherish it, and your children will feed on your strength and come through this all the stronger as a result.
Miss Phillips, Head of Leweston Prep