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“Can I do FaceTime with my friends?” is the most common cry I hear during lockdown. My daughter is missing her usual weekly playdates – badly.
She’s not the only one. Mum Sascha Akhtar tells me her seven-year-old has been playing up recently. “She was snapping at me as I was trying to get her to bed,” says Akhtar. “After about 20 exhausting minutes, she burst into a flood of tears and said, ‘I miss my friends!’ In that moment, I knew there was no point saying anything else besides, ‘Oh I’m so sorry,’ and she just nestled up really small next to me. ‘Poor you,’ I said, ‘It must be awful!’”
If you’re a parent, it can feel like you’re not getting a moment alone right now. But it’s worth stopping to think what this says about kids’ states of mind?
The schools are closed – taking away children’s usual 9am to 4pm routine. And if they’re young, they probably don’t have their own phone or independent means to chat to friends. With the holidays now over, too, but no clear date for when their lives will return to normal, no wonder they may be feeling lonely.
As Akhtar found out, dealing with our children’s complex emotions during lockdown isn’t easy, warns consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron.
“Loneliness is an underrepresented, very important emotion,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Usually, what it means for a child is that they’re missing their friends. It can wax and wane throughout the week, but it’s very real and very palpable.”
Citron says kids may have tantrums to express their frustration, or may be sad and slightly withdrawn if they’re feeling lonely. “As parents, we have a duty to recognise the low feelings they might be having, and give them a hug,” she says. “Share empathy by saying you know how tough it is.”
It can be useful to see how kids ‘self-describe’ experiences of the pandemic. Teacher Camilla Block, who lives in Denmark – which is the first country to allow children to return to school – asked her class to write down words they had experienced during lockdown and one of the children wrote “loneliness”.
“That was important to talk about because he’s from quite a big family, so it’s not because he’s been alone during the lockdown,” she told the BBC’s World Tonight. “Not being able to be with his friends felt like loneliness to him.”
Brendan Street, head of wellbeing at Nuffield Health (which has issued a free Parents’ Guide to Kids Emotional Wellbeing) suggests parents try a ‘four corners’ approach. This can help children make sense of what’s happening by breaking any situation down into more easily recognisable areas, he explains.
“Why we feel the way we do (emotions); the impact on the way we talk to ourselves (thoughts); how we respond to others around us (behaviours); and how our emotions, thoughts and behaviours can affect our bodies (physical body). Parents can work towards changing small things in each ‘corner’ that are unhelpful, to help them feel better.”
Akhtar says she would usually remind her daughter how nice it is to spend time with her family, but decided simply to listen to how she was feeling instead. “She’s seeing her father more than she usually does, and I know how good it is for her,” she says. “But I saw how much she was missing not squealing with her friends, not playing nonsensical games and not imagining endless fantastical scenarios – and I realised how nourishing a society of peers is for children.”
Here are 10 tips on how to help your child if you think they’re feeling lonely:
Identify their ‘triggers’
“Discuss it with them in a very open-ended way,” Emma Citron advises. “Ask them: “When have you noticed you’re missing your friends?” They might say it’s during the school day, because they’re used to seeing them between 9 and 4pm. You could reassure them that it’s been the holidays, and that’s why they haven’t spoken to them. And you can share with them that you realise it’s hard because the holidays started early.”
Listen when they’re feeling frustrated
“When they say, “It’s not fair, I’m not seeing my friends’, listen,” Citron says. “You can say, ‘Even though you’d normally do those things, try to understand it’s not personal to you and it’s affecting everyone.’ Ask them what they think would help them feel better. It may be that they want more contact with their friends – you can help them create a WhatsApp group or HouseParty or Zoom session on your phone or laptop, with supervision.”
Help them identify feelings by writing them down
“Tell them, ‘When you are feeling that way – frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, sad, confused – come to me and we can stick them on the fridge and you can point to one and tell me how you’re feeling. Then we can talk about it.’ This will help them to process the emotional experiences they’re having.”
Remember that kids need privacy, too
“They’ve lost privacy by not being with their friends,” Citron says. “Even if they’re little, it’s important for kids to have ‘private time’ to make silly jokes or chat about normal ‘kid’ things. Try to give them back some privacy.”
Diffuse rather than stoke tantrums
Avoid doing anything that provokes kids unduly – sarcasm, making them feel worse, or showing them up, Citron says. “Be empathetic and understanding with them. Say something like, ‘It’s very hard to help you when you’re screaming and waving your arms around. But I’m here to hug you.’”
It’s okay to feel irritable, too
“Acknowledge your feelings and normalise them,” Citron says. “Remind yourself they’re also something you can do something about – by going into the garden, if you’re lucky enough, or take yourself out to the park to speak to friends on the phone. If you’re feeling good, you’ll have more headspace to help your kids.”
Try ‘reflective listening’
This three-fold technique – ‘label’, ‘reflect’ and ‘normalise’ – can be a useful way to make your child feel heard and understood, says Street, and also develop confidence in talking about their feelings. “Start by labelling their emotions, ie. ‘You look/sound sad?’ and allow them to open up in their own time. Next try to reflect their emotions in your response ie. ‘So, you feel sad because…?’ Finally, try to normalise their feelings ie. ‘I would feel sad because of that too.’”
“Practicing acceptance of some uncertainty plays an important part in helping children to develop emotional resilience,” Street says. “Attention-training exercises such as mindfulness can help children be more aware of their thoughts and how to direct attention away from worrying. If you find they’re stuck in a ‘worry cycle’, setting aside specific times to talk about their worries such as half an hour in the morning or evening can be helpful.”
Practise breathing techniques
“If you feel your children are getting worked up, pay attention to the length of their exhales and inhales,” Street says. “Slower respirations decrease the body’s stress response so encourage them to breathe less than 12 breaths a minute. Pairing breathing exercises with mindfulness can be a great way to help them relax before bed and promote good sleeping habits, which are fundamental to children’s emotional wellbeing.”
Create a nurturing environment
“These are incredibly challenging times for parents and families, but try not to expose your children to parental disagreements or tension,” Street advises. “They need to know that the home is comforting and positive, and with so much external disruption they need things at home to function as normally as possible to help keep them free from worry.”