How Young Children are Responding to Stay-At-Home Directives and Why

Right now we are all stuck in our homes.  Families are stuck together, at the mercy of each and every high and low.  We face tremendous grief, loss, and trauma – all of us.  And, one of the hardest parts of this is the adult desire to control what their children are experiencing.  I have heard things such as we “don’t want to ruin their innocence,” “they are fine because they’re getting everything they need,” or “they’re too young for this to matter.”  There is also the constant conversation around maintaining previous schedules and activities, to the point of absolute panic.  Adults seem to want their children to continue on with regular schedules and activities as though nothing has changed.  In our defense, as adults, a lot of our employers want the same things from us.  Keep working, keep providing, focus on what needs to be done.  Go on without acknowledging what it means emotionally to lose physical contact with the world outside of your home, or to see, live, and hear unbelievable and consistent stories of death and insufficient protection.  Maybe it feels like if we let it in (the pain, the anxiety, the sadness), it will eat us alive.  There will be no way out, and so we try to keep ourselves and our children from getting too close.

But in truth our children have lost so much, often without the understanding of why.  We could try to maintain their innocence, but the fact is they are living through a once in a hundred years pandemic and we can’t change that.  As much as we try to carry on with things that are interesting and important, constantly redirecting them from the meltdown that is popping it’s head out, they know.  They know they have lost their friends.  They know they’ve lost the field trips, field days, and birthday parties that were promised.  They do not have the predictability of childcare or school, the relationships they’ve established with teachers and caregivers.  Many have lost physical contact with grandparents, cousins, and neighbors.  They are grieving just the same as you and I.  And, they also know that you are feeling things too.

More About Feelings…

When we tell our children that things aren’t that bad, but put out an energy of panic, fear, and anxiety, it is unsettling.  They might think, “why is mommy lying to me?”  This incongruence of how we feel versus what we say can create distrust and fear in young children, thus creating behavioral issues, nightmares, and meltdowns.  As hard as it might be, it is important that adults think about what they are feeling and what they are telling their children.  It is perfectly fine to spare the details, but you could explain that you are feeling scared because there are a lot of people getting sick or that you are angry that you have to stay home and can’t go to work.  It feels much safer for children to have a name for the feeling and an understanding that you’re doing your best to keep them safe even when you are feeling scared.

Magical Thinking

Developmentally, young children up to the age of 6 or 7, make sense of the world through magical thinking – the belief that we have control of our world through our thoughts, fears, and wishes.  It is difficult to know for sure with non-verbal children, but the older the child is within this stage, the more likely they are to believe that they literally did something to create social distancing or other situations that come up daily.  They might show defiance out of shame and guilt. This thinking often does not follow the logical patterns we as adults might use to make sense of things.  If we only allow our adult kind of thinking, we will miss the important internal experience of the child. That is why it’s important to talk to kids about how they are feeling and why.  What they tell us is based on their understanding of what happened and might sound more like a story (or like magic!)  It’s important for kids to have the freedom and safety to explain their reasoning with the understanding that, however crazy it might sound to us, it is developmentally appropriate. When we do this we can support our children in understanding that none of this is their fault.  

(For more information – https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/ages-stages-how-children-use-magical-thinking/)

Photo by Mitch Kesler on Pexels.com

The Art of Emotional Regulation

One of the most important things we do when we respond to a young child’s emotions is called co-regulation.  Young children rely on caregivers to help them regulate their emotions until they can learn to consistently self-regulate.  Even children who seem to have mastered self-regulation might require additional support with co-regulation right now.  It is not uncommon for children to show some regression in times of stress or trauma.  This could be why it is so difficult to work from home right now – the child who used to be able to play alone and easily complete tasks independently is now by your side all of the time.

The younger the child, the more likely it is that they will need an adult to help them regulate big emotions. This is so important for us adults at this time, because it is challenging to regulate ourselves.  Never, in our lifetimes have we been asked to know how to maintain a healthy emotional response during a pandemic.  Most of us typically try very hard not to show our own meltdowns to our children.  But, when do we melt down?  Because it seems like we all need space for this emotional purging right now, for our own mental health and for the health of our relationships.  

Tap Out

One of the strategies I have talked most about with other parents and my husband is “tapping out.”  This is the recognition that you need to get out of the ring for a little bit.  You might need to go cry in your car, go pound out the anger in a walk or workout, or call a friend for connection.  If you are living with another adult, it might be worth it to talk with each other about how you could do this.  When and how do you ask each other for a break?  I know that there might be limitations to this idea due to work schedules, trust and safety, or being the only adult in the room.  Creatively thinking, you might have to think about the times that are hardest – for me I’ve recognized Fridays are very hard for me and my daughter.  Plan to take things easier during those times, strategically incorporate screen time or activities that have less power struggles.  It is ok, actually it is necessary, for us adults to give ourselves space to feel what we are feeling.  If we can’t allow our feelings space, they will come out at other times and in ways that we didn’t intend.  They could even be causing some of the problems you’re facing with our loved ones.

So as we carry on, lets recognize it isn’t an easy time for anyone. Children are relying on us to provide safety and support, and this can be exhausting.  Giving space for feelings, even if they are born out of magical thinking, will help tremendously.  Being honest about our own needs and asking for help from each other is significant.  If we see an increase in conversations about feelings between ourselves and our children, we are probably doing something right.

Written by, April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E, UpliftMEchildtherapy.com

Play! Please Play With Me!!! Why Your Child Needs Play and What to Do About It

I can’t tell you how many times a day I hear this statement from my own child.  It’s definitely challenging for me to think about how to give her the amount of play she is requesting, and obviously guilt provoking when I play with other people’s children all day, but don’t have time to play with her.

This weekend, I felt pulled by the obligations of running a household and playing with my daughter.  Who would buy the groceries, cook dinner, and do the dishes if I took the time to play?  These competing demands can literally squash a sense of feeling successful as a partner, parent, and generally up-kept person – or maybe that’s just me.

As I struggled to think about how to organize the day in a way to meet every single perceived demand, my husband stepped in and offered some advice.  He has heard me talk (probably ad nauseam) about the importance of playing with children.  So, he suggested I play with our daughter and took the household expectations off the table (they still had to be done some way or another, but by having placed play above all else he allowed me to do so as well).  

After visiting the new office that I am currently getting ready for clients, we came home and played.  We played dress up with princess dresses, wands, superhero capes and masks, and even dressed up the cat!  She guided me through a beautiful play scenario where her toy cat was able to stay at a play date while the mom (Wonder Woman!) went to the beach.  I don’t know about where you are, but I am in Colorado in mid-February, so a trip to the beach sounded A ma Zing!  Spending time at friend’s houses without mom or dad is a something she has been emotionally processing with friends at school with talks of playdates on the weekends.  In true fashion (usually it takes a few times for the play to be resolved), she played this scenario out 5 or 6 times before we moved to the next activity.

So, why would I want to focus on play?  What is the importance that my husband understood and granted permission for?  Most importantly, why should it matter to you as a parent?

Play is the language of childhood.  If you ask any early childhood teacher, therapist, or even recreation provider (i.e. dance instructor), they will tell you this.  Children need play to understand the world.  They also tell us their experiences through their play and what is going on inside of their heads.  When I spent an hour playing dress up and playing a mother at the beach, my daughter was able to communicate her desire for a play date without me and also to think about what that would be like for her.    

She will often become “the mommy” and will tell her sad children that she’s sorry she is too busy to play, but she has to … do dishes, cook dinner, or is just too busy in general.  Ouch to this one!  But I will allow her to play it out without rescuing or arguing that I do play with her because she does have to figure out how to manage the feelings that come up when the object of her desired play interaction either can’t or won’t play with her.  Disappointment is inevitable and giving her the space to experience it in a setting that she controls also allows her to try out different responses and/or experience the different directions things can go.  It allows her to let the stuffy who is her “child” feel angry, feel sad, cry, whine, or find something else to do.  It also allows her to begin to experience some empathy (putting herself in the shoes of another person) on the part of the “mom.”  She is choosing to play the mom in this situation and is managing the big emotions of the “child”.  Isn’t this what we all want our children to know, to learn, and to practice – problem solving, coping with big emotions, and managing conflict?  How amazing is it to think that they could learn this through their play, and we can watch it happen?

We also recently experienced a death in the family and although my daughter presented to us that she was not upset when we told her, we noticed she started throwing herself onto the floor dramatically.  She did this several times and my initial wonder was whether or not she was tired.  But when I simply stated, “you’re falling on the floor,” she began saying “I’m your grandma and I’m dead, you have to come and visit me.”  I agreed to follow this play rather than make a statement about how she can’t say things like that or how upsetting that statement was.  I instead said, “I’m visiting you – and you are dead?” at which point, she would awaken and say she’s ok.  It wasn’t a close family member who passed, certainly not her grandmother, but what I understood about her play was her understanding and concern of the ever-present possibility that someone she loves could die or be gone forever.  She was able to process death in this scenario without the permanence of losing her grandmother.

Now, I know that these might sound like dramatic incidents of play, but they really are things that happen every day.  The question is how can you begin to see your child’s play and begin to understand what they are managing or communicating?

First, allow your child to lead you in play if you can.  I promise you aren’t giving up your status as the adult in charge when you do this.  You can still set limits around safety and remind them of household rules.  It is amazing to witness the worlds, the scenarios, and even the dialogue your child can create.  Sit back and be wowed by who your child is and have fun too! It’s ok to join them in this space.  They will appreciate you trying to understand them.

Second, simply just reflecting what you are seeing or hearing can be so helpful to your child.  I know it’s often difficult for us adults to get down on the floor and really get into the play with a million things bouncing around in our heads.  Even if playing is difficult, sharing what you are seeing or asking basic questions is enough to join the play.  You might say, “The mom is going to the beach while you stay with a friend?”  This allows you to be in the moment with your child.  It expresses that you see them and that you are here with them.  It also models for your child how to be reflective because they will need to think about the statements you are making, and this promotes cognitive development and problem solving.

Third, attachment.  I know that almost all of my blogs will mention this word and that’s because I think it is so important it should be mentioned at every opportunity.  When you play with your child you are teaching them how to be in a relationship.  You are making eye contact, smiling, and sharing in a conversation.  It’s the back and forth of a conversation, or even passing a ball between you that builds the brain networks needed for a healthy self-esteem and general understanding of what a relationship looks like.  You have the opportunity to set the stage for a lifetime of how your child feels they deserve to be treated, not just by you but by friends, future partners, future employers.  By playing with your child you are building the foundation of their future relationships.  If that isn’t powerful enough to put the dishes aside, I’m not sure what is.  Most parents I have met, and I’ve met a lot of parents, want their children to have good relationships and a happy future.  I’m sure you feel the same.

Last, don’t take your child so literally.  When children communicate through play they are not speaking, not the way you and I do.  This is not a linear/logical conversation, it is primarily metaphorical.  When children get into a play scenario where they are working through some things, they are playing out what scares them, what worries them, or what is confusing to them.  They might repeat the play scenario multiple times before moving on to something new.  And, the majority of their play will not be an expression of greater processing, but just plain having fun and learning – and who doesn’t love that?!?  

Hopefully you’ve learned a few things about your child’s play and feel motivated to spend more time watching their play, reflecting on their play, and getting down there to play with them.  If you notice play that is consistently coming up over and over or creates a sense of panic and dysregulation in your child, you might consider contacting a play therapist.  Consider this especially if you are also noticing consistent challenges with sleep, separation, excessive worry or fear, being easily upset by certain noises/touches/smells/or places, or emotional outbursts or meltdowns.  You might also consider this if you experienced a difficult childhood or relationship with your parent growing up, and the thought of playing with your child leaves your brain spinning.

A parent-child play therapist would help your child process the disturbing or upsetting material while helping you support your child, learn how to play, and build a trust that you can handle these big emotions and all of the play your child can dish out.  You are your child’s best support, teacher, and foundation provider.  You can do this, and your child will, no doubt, benefit from your efforts.    

For more information on the importance of play:

https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/series/play-with-me

https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182

Written by April Galligan, LCSW IMH-E@

https://upliftmechildtherapy.com/contact/