What do young children most need from their parents during this extraordinary time?

What do young children most need from their parents during this extraordinary time?

For most kids in the UK, this is the start of the second week when they would have been in school.  There are, most likely, many weeks ahead.  So, as parents, how can we best help them to adapt to this time?

Primary school children are, developmentally, still very much focussed on their parents and family.  The world of what is important to them is generally quite small.  This means that whatever is going on in their immediate family and in their home will determine how they feel, much more than what is going on in the wider world.  

There are two main components to this.  One the one hand, the daily rhythm of life in the family has an impact.  Young children, to differing degrees, are often unable to create their own structure, so they rely on that created by others.  It is as if their own internal scaffolding is not yet constructed.  So, simple things like getting up at roughly the same time each day, having regular meals and routines will help them cope with this extended time without the normal rhythm of school.  It supports them in the way that scaffolding supports a building. 

The other key component, however, is a little more complex.  This involves what is going on underneath the surface of family life.  It concerns the emotional vibrations.  Children are like sponges.  They soak up everything that is in their surrounding environment.  Whilst they may hear their parents’ words, they sense the emotion underlying them.  We all know that on a day when we are especially stressed and irritable, our toddlers will be more fractious.  Children are a mirror of the internal state of their parents.  

I am aware that, for many parents, reading something like that evokes feelings of guilt and inadequacy.  It can feel like too much of a responsibility and a burden, and we can too easily criticise ourselves for not doing our parenting job well enough.  One of the best things we can do for our children, however, is to let go of those self-critical inner voices.  The labels of ‘good parent/bad parent’ are unhelpful because they don’t describe the complex reality of parenting.  It is an absolute impossibility for a parent to get it ‘right’ the whole time.  The key thing is that, when we do get it wrong (which we all will, repeatedly) we try to recognise it and then make it right if we can.  The psychotherapist Philippa Perry calls this ‘rupture and repair’.  It’s not ideal but it’s OK that things rupture, as long as we try our best to repair them afterwards. 

So, returning to the idea that our children are a mirror of our own internal state, one of the best ways to help our primary school kids at this time is to do whatever we can to get ourselves into the best internal state possible.  I do not say this lightly.  I understand that this is a time of enormous anxiety – about health, finances, work, the future.  But it is also an opportunity.  An opportunity to model to our children that we can weather difficult times.  An opportunity to show our children that, when life does not go according to plan, we can adapt and find another way through. 

Chinese medicine explains why children are so susceptible to picking up what is going on in their emotional environment.  The ‘protective’ qi at the surface of the body, which helps to create a filter between the child and the environment, is not yet fully formedThe spirit/emotions (shen) are not yet fully ‘rooted’ because the child’s qi is being consumed by the process of growth and development.  So there is less available to ground the emotions.  Like a boat without an anchor, a child will more easily get swept away by a strong wave of emotion.

If you, the parent, are feeling anxious, frustrated and sad, here are some suggestions of how to manage this in a way which is helpful for both you and your primary school children:

  • Acknowledge the feelings.  Feelings are not the enemy – it’s OK to have them.  By acknowledging them, they are less likely to cause you get into an emotional ‘funk’.
  • Find a time each day to do something that you know helps you maintain an emotional even keel – whether that be yoga, going for a walk, meditating or beating up a pillow.  Even if you are juggling home schooling and work, prioritise this.  Put the kids in front of the TV for half an hour if you have to in order to find the time.  They will benefit from having you in a better place more than they will lose out from having a bit of extra TV.
  • Avoid telling your kids that you are fine if you are not.  This is deeply confusing for them because they will hear the word ‘fine’ and, in their sponge-like way, pick up that you are not.  You can say to them something like ‘I am feeling sad at the moment because we can’t visit Granddad, but it’s great that we can chat to him on the phone and this time will pass.’
  • Dig deep.  This truly is an exceptionally difficult time, and each family is affected in a unique and complex way.  But as parents it is up to us to dig deep and steer the ship (our family) through the turbulence to calmer waters. 
  • Arrange Zoom calls with friends or family that you know help you to feel supported, in lieu of being able to see them.

The hardest thing for primary school children at this time will be the impact it has on the adults around them.  Most will not have the cognitive capacity to understand the magnitude of what is going on in the world.  We are their rocks and, despite many of us not feeling solid, they will take their cues from us.  So, dig deep and remember that this time will pass.  And remember, you and your children can come out of this experience with increased strength and resilience. There is a Chinese proverb which sums this up brilliantly:

The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.

Rebecca Avern

I have been practising acupuncture for 15 years. As well as practising in Oxford, I am both a senior lecturer and clinical supervisor at the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine (www.cicm.org.uk) which is the biggest acupuncture training centre in Europe. I have treated both adults and children and whilst the benefits of acupuncture for adults are well-known and well-documented, fewer people are aware of how it can benefit children. I decided that I wanted more children to experience the benefits of acupuncture, and so decided to set up The Panda Clinic. I have to admit to having another motivation - I love being around children and derive great satisfaction when I see children recover from ill health. I am mother to 2 primary school age children. As well as being an experienced acupuncturist, as a parent I have a good understanding of the stress and anxiety that an ill child can induce. I will always do my best to communicate with the parent(s) of a child I am treating as thoroughly and clearly as I can.