All of us found ourselves in a very unexpected situation in March this year – confined to our homes, with our children, as the novel coronavirus swept the globe. Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jo-Marie Bothma explains what her children taught her during this time.
Families across the world are slowly becoming more accustomed to the evolving changes in daily life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, most schools, places of public gathering, and non-essential businesses are closed, and parents are faced with helping their children adjust to this new normal.
It helps knowing that many are in the same boat. It is, in fact, almost reassuring to read stories of how other parents are currently coping, and to then duplicate some of the suggestions into one’s own household. There is also some comfort in sharing successes online for others to read and possibly inspire.
The thing is – we are all pretty much new to the principles of self-isolation, social distancing and lockdown. Except for those in countries that are a few weeks ahead of South Africa, everyone treads on unfamiliar territory and we are all learning as we travel this unusual road.
I have fixed my eyes on trying to find what experts had to say about bringing up children under pandemic circumstances and how to survive lockdown as a working family. And while doing so, I have almost missed completely what children can teach us. It would be a pity if we overlooked what our children can bring to the discussion table. This is what I’ve learned:
- Stay active
I can remember feeling very concerned after the realisation kicked in that 21 days of lockdown could become rather challenging. I was overwhelmed and felt caged in. At the same time, I was racking my brain to think of ways to juggle home schooling, an online practice, household chores and keeping everyone happy.
While brooding about all of these I could not come up with creative ideas, as there were giggles and hopping noises coming from the corridor outside my home office. I was forced to investigate. My children were having a bunny race all through the house.
I initially wanted to warn about heads getting bumped, but instead ended up having a shot at bunny hopping myself. I cannot remember when last I felt so alive, refreshed and connected with those around me. Half an hour later my head was thinking straight again and lockdown did not seem that dreadful anymore. With many exercises apps and online videos, there is no excuse to not stay active.
- Establish and maintain a daily routine
The extended coronavirus school holiday was barely a few days old when my seven-year-old entered the bathroom one morning with a pen and paper in her hand. She insisted on my help so that she can plan her day.
I was halfway working conditioner through my wet hair, and a formal written contract to how we should spend our Saturday was not high on my priority list. The more I tried to explain to her that we could just chat about our plans for the day, the more adamant she became on writing it all down. She wanted to know how to spell ‘breakfast’ and ‘Storytime’ and ‘dollhouse play’.
The real deal is that most children – whether they are planners or not – find some regularity and rhythm in their daily routine as very comforting. The predictability provides a sense of control.
She noticeably became energetic and confident as we worked together to fill a piece of paper with carefully selected activities in some flexible order. We drew small pictures next to words that were too long or difficult for her to read, and soon her younger siblings were interested in designing their own weekly draft of what they would like to do.
We made sure to add a space where everyone had their own quiet and uninterrupted time, as well as some time to connect with friends virtually, and practising sport. The mood in our home changed from that moment forwards. We were a family with some control in the middle of a world of chaos.
Daily or weekly planners help children to stay occupied, to feel safe and attempt to keep up with their schoolwork as best as possible. It can even make parents feel better knowing that they are now more prepared. Living in lockdown conditions is never easy, but staying focused on what is possible makes the situation better and reassures everyone in the family that all will be okay.
- Limit television viewing and social media
As I was reading out the total infection count for my husband one morning around the breakfast table my preschool son looked up from his toast and spoke one sentence that made me stop right in my tracks.
“Mommy, why do you talk so much about this germ?” His words echoed for a while and then my husband also curiously gazed at me for an answer. There is power in knowledge, and for most this brings a sense of control. I was definitely not obsessed with the pandemic, but lately the topic had directed most of our family conversations.
While it is important to be informed, it should not steal your everyday pleasure and rule your daily thinking.
- Create your own joy
I have always appreciated sitting down in the late afternoons with a cup of tea to watch my children playing. During the lockdown I had even more opportunity to do so. Time and again I have witnessed that with very little available, children can create an entire afternoon full of pure joy.
From ‘baking’ with playdough to constructing a tent with towels – all was aimed to do something pleasurable. Children manage to use their creativity to not only bring happiness to themselves but to others as well.
It is important to remember that children look to adults for guidance on how to react to in stressful events. Even though we should acknowledge some level of concern, it is wise to do so without panicking or catastrophising. Creating joy in everyday tasks can help children to lessen their anxiety and worries. This can in turn build resilience and even contribute to the development of emotional intelligence.
I flagged that inside my mind and tried to find at least one general activity every day that could be twisted in some way to become more joyful. One of our favourites is now when the whole family brush their teeth together before the children’s bedtime. We share different toothpaste and check to see whose teeth are the brightest afterwards.
- Do not lose sleep and do not skip meals
I made the mistake one morning of quickly cramming an online consultation session into an already jam-packed day. I did not sleep well the night before and skipped breakfast in the morning rush. I had a throbbing headache during the consultation and suffered through one bad parenting moment after the other during the rest of that day.
In hindsight it should have not surprised me. There are not many things as volatile and erratic as a toddler who missed their afternoon nap or experienced a spell of low blood sugar – except, maybe, a tired and concerned parent who neglects their own basic needs. It reminded me of the flight attendants explaining that parents should first put on their own oxygen mask before helping children and vulnerable others.
- Sometimes having a meltdown is the best thing that can happen
We have all witnessed it: children losing themselves in a fury of crying, shouting and sometimes even dropping to the floor or stamping their feet. I had one of those days.
I was worried and bone-tired. The children were unco-operative and on a mission to challenge all general house rules. By 10am, I knew I was going to lose it. I left the children playing with blocks in the living room and for a few minutes had a quiet meltdown of my own in the bathroom: sobbing, miming angry shouts in the bathroom mirror and even throwing a tissue on the floor. It was a great relief, and just enough to get my frustration out. Ten minutes later I was sitting on the floor next to my children building a tower with them.
I guess we are never too old or clever to learn – even from our own children.