How to boost positivity for your family at home

Welcome to the Parents' Toolkit

By Andrea Danese, Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at King’s College London

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live as individuals and as families. We are uncertain about the future and we are limited in what we can do. It’s not surprising that we may sometimes struggle to feel happy and motivated.

This is true for both grown-ups and children. How often have we, as parents, felt frustrated or irritable during lockdown? How many times have we found ourselves snapping in situations that we could usually take in our stride? This is the same for children, and it often simply reflects that we have all been facing a difficult situation and need to find better ways of coping with it.

Unfortunately, we can’t magically change our feelings, or our children’s feelings, by clicking our fingers. However, we can work to change our behaviour, which in turn can influence our emotions.

Here are some tips to help you boost positivity within your family and manage difficult emotions that may arise at this time and in the future.

1. Be kind to ourselves

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However much parents and carers try to be superheroes, it’s a difficult persona to maintain! Every superhero needs some down time and private space - especially if your child hasn’t returned to school or nursery - and it’s very difficult to entertain and educate children while also trying to work. Children will get bored and parents and carers aren’t expected to suddenly know and teach the whole curriculum. There just isn’t enough time.

It’s crucial to recognise that you’ve been doing the best job you can in a very difficult situation and to avoid comparing yourself with others who might have been living in very different circumstances. Be kind to yourself. Not just for your sake, but also to teach acceptance and compassion to your children. Now and in the future, this lesson may be more important than learning mathematics or history.

2. Building new routines

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When old routines, like those from work or school, are lost, it is helpful to build new routines by writing down a plan together with your children. This should not be another form of imposed school timetable, and it can be done in a fun and creative way by presenting children with some choices over the activities, how the schedule is portrayed or decorated, and where it is placed in the home.

The schedule doesn’t have to be the same every day or week, but some consistency is important (see tip 3). Most important of all is to schedule in those fun activities: playing a game, messy art and crafts, baking, or whatever it is your children enjoy (see tip 4). The trick is for you and your children to then act in accordance with the schedule rather than based on how you might feel when the time for a planned activity comes. Encourage them to stick to the plan and to notice how they feel as a result.

3. Don't forget the essentials

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‘Hangry’ is now a well-established term in parenting blogs, describing the state when children become bad-tempered as a result of hunger. Now more than ever, children need to keep eating and sleeping at regular times to experience a consistent and predictable environment. Mealtimes are also a really important time to ensure that the family get together, talk, and have fun - children can write menus based on what’s available at home, help prepare the meal, or even dress up for a special occasion.

Also make sure to keep in touch with friends and other family members through video calls and social media. This provides something to look forward to in the day, and a way for children to talk about what they have been doing and what they have enjoyed.

4. Make time for things you enjoy

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When we’re feeling that nothing is much fun anymore, it can be helpful to remind children what they like and what makes them feel good - typically activities that create a sense of achievement, closeness, and/or enjoyment. Sit down together and write a list of what is important to them, such as being creative or being a good friend. Then think together what it is they can do to show these valued qualities, such as drawing or texting their friends.

It is important to ensure a variety in activities, so they span across education, exercise, creative activities, and socialising. You can also encourage your children to try something new so they can feel a sense of accomplishment. It has never been more important to find new and creative ways of having fun and enjoying life.

5. Name and tame big emotions

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When children and young people are feeling low, they are often irritable and get easily upset by what may seem to be small problems. Whether it is a small rip in a picture book, the loss of a piece of Lego, or a friend not contacting them for a couple of hours, these may all seem minor issues to us, but they can be incredibly important to your children at the time. It’s helpful to acknowledge the problem and also the emotion that it has created. Naming emotions is the first step to helping children find ways to tame them. It’s also helpful for children to know that it’s okay to feel upset when things are tough, and to reassure them that the bad feelings will pass with time.

6. Calming techniques

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When big emotions come up there are a number of techniques that can help children to manage them. For example, they can find a quiet space to calm down, take deep breaths, distract themselves with exercise, music, or reading, or talk to someone they trust. You can help children use grounding techniques, which involve paying close attention to their senses and the details of what they can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel around them. For example, listening out for lyrics or different instruments in music, focusing on brush or pencil strokes when painting and colouring, or eating mindfully to notice textures and tastes.

You can also help your children create their own box of calming activities that appeal to their senses including things such as modelling clay, slime, essential oils, candles, favourite music, and photos. Finally, you can encourage children to use their imagination to take themselves to a safe or fun place.

7. Reflecting and learning

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Because it is hard to think clearly when experiencing big emotions, it is important to encourage children to consider their feelings, thoughts, and behaviours once they are in a calmer place. In this way, you can help your children think about other ways they could have coped with the situation and how they can be kinder with themselves or others. Over time, you can also help them notice early signs of big emotions, so they can use the above strategies before things get difficult. To begin with, it may be helpful to offer praise and little rewards when children manage to use those strategies to encourage good behaviours.

It’s important to remember that you know your children best. Use your intuition to decide which tips might work for you and your children. Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs out there, and sometimes it’s about trusting that you know your children and that you can understand and help them in difficult times.

For more advice on looking after your family’s mental health during this time, there are some useful tips in this series of animations Families Under Pressure, developed to help support families during the pandemic.

Additional support by Drs. Patrick Smith, Jessica Richardson, Zoe Maiden, and Sarah Miles, of the National & Specialist CAMHS Clinic for Trauma, Anxiety, and Depression at the NHS Maudsley Hospital.

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