A psychologist shares 11 key ways to protect your kids mental health this half term

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  • Top tips for safeguarding your little one's mind, from The Psychology Mum

    There’s been a whole host of support offered to adults during the Coronavirus pandemic. When the crisis hit the UK in March, government ministers were quick to set up monetary support for the permanently and self-employed. Their schemes aimed to help anyone who was suddenly or unexpectedly out of work.

    Here at Marie Claire we’ve run guides to burnout, managing COVID-induced money worries and coping with redundancy. We penned a round-up of the best mental health apps for adults feeling depressed, stressed, anxious or fatigued, alongside a whole ream of health and fitness content (hey, home workouts) aimed at making sure you’re staying in top physical shape from home, too.

    But what about the children? We’re all too quick to forget that, for youngsters this year, it’s been a rough ride, too. Many children (and parents) were forced into home-schooling overnight when schools shut. It’s become clear that working-class students were hit hardest when it came to A Level results, thanks to a questionable algorithm that decided the grades. And yet, the true extent of just how much learning has been stinted by a year of sporadic online teaching is yet to come to the fore.

    Most kids have now been back at school since September, but as half-term approaches, it’s important to acknowledge the confusion your child may be feeling. That’s according to doctor Emma Hepburn (@thepsychologymum), a clinical psychologist and author of A Toolkit for Modern Life; 53 Ways to Look After Your Mind (£17.99, amazon.co.uk). “Some early research by Oxford University suggests that parents with kids between the ages of 4 and 10 years of age saw an increase in their child’s emotional difficulties during lockdown,” she shares.

    Like? The report details children felt more unhappy and worried, with tell-tale behaviours including increased clinginess and physical symptoms associated with worry, like tummy aches, headaches, bedwetting, disturbed sleep, and nightmares.

    “The government’s recent State of the Nation report indicated that mental health difficulties have increased for some school-aged children over the course of the pandemic,” Emma continues. However, she stresses it’s not all gloom and doom. “Many children and families are extremely resilient in the face of challenges. The report highlighted that despite what a difficult year it’s been, many children proved resilient.”

    Keen to read up on her top tips for safeguarding your little one’s mental health through this turbulent time, nonetheless? Read on—and don’t miss our top COVID-friendly Halloween ideas, while you’re here.

    11 children’s mental health tools: a psychologist’s top tips for protecting your kid

    1. Normalise your child’s feelings

    If your child is feeling anxious, worried, stressed or angry, make sure you communicate to them that this is okay. Explaining that it’s only normal to have ups and downs will help them to understand their changing emotions as a part of life, Emma explains.

    “Let them know that everybody feels worried or bad at times, even their favourite TV character or singer. Putting it into their terms and explaining that it’s a completely normal feeling, that everyone experiences from time to time, is important,” she explains.

    2. Validate their experience and feelings

    Similar to the above, but slightly different. “It’s very easy to fall into saying reassuring statements like “there’s nothing to be scared of”,” Emma explains. However, she stresses that these statements can minimise feelings. “They don’t encourage open conversation about how children actually feel. Instead, try acknowledge and validate their emotion—that way, they’ll feel heard and supported.”

    She suggests using validating statements such as:

    • It sounds like you are a bit worried about … (subject matter)
    • Lots of people feel worried about these types of things
    • It’s okay to feel this way
    • We can speak about these and find ways to work them out.

    3. Ensure you don’t minimise their feelings

    This can be tricky when you’re tired and find yourself relying on bad habits, but it is important. “You can easily slip into invalidating statements such as “don’t be a baby” or “don’t be silly”,” Emma shares. “Try and be mindful of the language you are using around emotions, when possible, to ensure you are not minimising any of their emotions,” she continues.

    View this post on Instagram

    Icebergs back! But this time it’s Corona iceberg. We all make comparisons and it can seem we are doing so much worse than those around it. But the reality is we often just don’t know what’s going on underneath the surface, and because of this we compare our whole iceberg to someone else’s iceberg tip, what’s showing above the surface. And that’s just not a very valid comparison. Not only do we make judgments about ourselves based on invalid iceberg tip comparisons, but we can make invalid judgments about other people too. The person who rudely passed you without saying hi is too worried about their financial situation to that they don’t have brain space to notice what’s going on around them. The friend who keeps on turning down zoom invites feels overwhelmed by life that speaking to others seems like one step too far. The work colleague who isn’t pulling their weight is so anxious about the potential impact of Covid on their ill family members that they have to reduce their work duties. So crush your self comparison by recognising you only have part of the picture and widen your compassion by also realising you only have part of the picture. Because the tip of the iceberg rarely tells the whole story. I had loads of responses for this drawing… which just shows the extent of what’s going on underneath the surface at a time of Corona virus… probably even more than normal. I’ve tried to summarise the responses by theme… but there were just too many to capture. Thank you to all those that responded and sorry if I’ve not managed to capture your response here.

    A post shared by Dr Emma Hepburn (@thepsychologymum) on

    4. Find ways for you to manage their emotions

    Did you know? Children normally show emotion through their behaviour. “Your brains are designed to pick up on emotions, so when our child’s emotions rise, your emotions often rise in tandem,” Emma describes. Ever wondered why it’s so hard to stay calm or not shout back? For this exact reason.

    “Find ways to help you calm down so you can respond helpfully and calmly to their emotions or outbursts,” she prompts. “This might be slow breathing, taking a few minutes before you respond, or only using genuinely helpful statements.”

    Why? Well, you’ll likely know that responding when stressed or emotional (hello, shouting) normally only heightens the tension and prolongs the drama. “Children are taught from behaviours and learn how to deal with their own emotions from how people around them respond to theirs. Try to make sure you are feeling calm before you respond to your children’s emotions, when you can,” Emma concludes.

    5. Plan feel-good activities

    If you haven’t read our must-do guide to COVID-friendly Halloween fun for kids, now is the time.

    It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the best way to chat, discipline and raise your kids, but sometimes, the best remedy for both your and their stress is just to have some fun together, Emma explains. “Speak to your children about what they enjoy doing, and what makes them feel good,” she shares.

    She suggests planning some simple fun activities based around their suggestion for during the half term. That way, children have something to look forward to. Plus, building on things your children enjoy will only encouraging your their interests, she adds.

    6. Spend time with them

    As per the previous point, sometimes the simplest approaches are the most powerful.

    Notice your child acting a little down? “Try to allocate some individual time playing or doing activities with your children,” Emma suggests. “If they’re chosen by your children, even better. This helps children feel safe and secure. It’s often at these times you will pick up on worries or they will start to actually open up to you about what’s on their mind.”

    View this post on Instagram

    Eh hello lots of new people and thank you @mother_pukka and @bbcbreakfast for directing so many of you my way. Here’s a wee insight into the person behind the account and what I do. I’m a clinical psychologist that works in the nhs. To be a regulated health care professional I have to base my work on the best available evidence, and my illustrations draw on that and people’s experience. I might ask you to contribute to my drawings at times as I like to think of this as interactive psychology… my recent iceberg is an example to this- I try and theme these responses in the final drawing. As you can probably tell I like to draw psychology. This can be about mental health, psychological concepts and how the brain works (I’ve also got a postgraduate qualification in neuropsychology so I like brains a lot). Why draw psychology? I’ve always drawn as part of my clinical work and this page was my excuse to buy a fancy pants iPad so I could make these prettier and get them beyond the clinic room to share with more people, to help them look after their mental health and wellbeing. But I can’t introduce you to me without introducing you to Brian. You probably won’t see me much around here as I prefer to leave the limelight to Brian, a badly drawn cartoon brain (who will be furious he isn’t featured in this drawing- I’ll face his wrath later). Brain likes to talk about himself a lot and exude the wonders of the brain, while i’lll counteract this by telling you why our brains sometimes get it wrong (he won’t like that either). If you like my drawings, there are lots more in my book ‘A Toolkit for Modern life: 53 ways to look after your mind’ out on 17th September. But if you’re a really keen Brian fan, you can pre order this now for delivery on release date. (Link in bio). This drawing captures what this page and my book is about. If you have a brain (& a mind) you have mental health, and anybody’s mental health can suffer. I believe we need to focus on mental health not just when it goes wrong, but look after it proactively at all times. Anyway, welcome aboard and thank to those who have been here for a while….. now I’m off to face the wrath of Brian.

    A post shared by Dr Emma Hepburn (@thepsychologymum) on

    7. Focus on children and family strengths

    Think about this one: when someone reminds you of your strengths, it makes you feel good. Right? The same applies to kids.

    “Remind them about all the things you have managed or achieved as a family,” Emma suggests. “Tell them how proud you are of them and how well they have managed during the lockdown. Letting them know that, as a family, you will work together and manage any future changes and challenges is important and reassuring”, she adds.

    8. Praise their efforts

    Again, something that works for adults and children alike. Everyone loves a compliment.

    “Focus on what they have done well and praise them when they manage difficult challenges. It’s also worth giving them a ‘well done’ when they do open up and speak to you about how they are feeling. It makes it more likely for them to repeat the behaviour”, the psychologist shares.

    N.B. here: focusing on the effort rather than achievement is thought to be the most helpful form of praise, according to Emma.

    9. Re-establish routines a few days before you go back

    Half-term doesn’t need to be chaotic, but equally, it’s okay if routines have slipped, Emma says. Just make sure you’ve vaguely got the kids back into a routine before they go back to school, she suggests.

    “By re-establishing these prior to school going back, you can minimise the number of changes happening at one time and create a settling routine prior to school”, she says. Crisis averted.

    10. Help develop coping strategies to regulate their emotions

    You know like you use the Calm app and do your home workouts? Kids need coping strategies, too. “Practise calming activities and relaxation at home and try and make them as fun as possible. Think yoga, stretching and breathing. Relaxation activities can also be a helpful part of any bedtime routine”, Emma explains.

    Not sure where to look? She reckons there are lots of good ideas on mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk and recommends the Cosmic Kids Yoga channel on YouTube, where there are lots of fun and easy to follow yoga and relaxation videos for children.

    11. Look after yourself

    This one is important. “Being kind and compassionate to yourself and looking after your own needs is essential for any parent. Make sure to talk through your own worries with people you trust. This is also probably a stressful time for you, so ensure you look after your own wellbeing as much as you can. This is essential for you to be able to help your child”, she concludes.

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