Making the most of family time during the COVID-19 lockdown: Why routine, relationships and play matter so much

Deirdre McAliskey, from the National Children’s Bureau and Maurice Meehan, PHA, consider how families can explore ways to stay safe, healthy and happy during the COVID-19 lockdown. To view our complete series of COVID-19 blogs, click here.

Family cooking together

These are strange and challenging days. Family life, health, work, education and wider support networks continue to be affected by life in lockdown. We are all learning what children, particularly those with additional and complex needs, have been trying to tell us – a sudden change in routine can be overwhelming! 

Just as we try to reassure our children, it is important to remind ourselves that there are evidence-based approaches to parenting in stressful circumstances that can help support our families, leading them from a sense of vulnerability to a place of resilience.

Routine: structure the stress

Accepting that this situation is stressful and beyond your control is the first step to choosing how we respond to that stress. It’s normal “not to feel normal” at this time.  Acknowledging your thoughts and feelings can help you make better decisions about your behaviour. It’s the same for children and young people. Routine and structure help children to build a healthy tolerance to stress: when they feel safe and secure, they are more able to develop, learn, adapt to change and engage positively with others. Having regular times for getting up, eating meals together and sleeping are good places to start.

Sleep matters

Getting enough good quality sleep is very important for all the family. Simple steps like leaving phones and devices outside the bedroom at night will help create a more relaxing and calming atmosphere for everyone.

Relationships: keep talking

Relationships are more important now more than ever and how we speak to ourselves and others plays a really big part in buffering stress and distress within our families. It’s okay to admit we don’t have all the answers right now. Sharing age-appropriate information about COVID-19 can help children and young people make sense of the changes they’re being asked to conform to. It is important to use only trusted sources for information. 

We also need to redirect family conversations away from the pandemic. What you give attention to grows. Staying connected with your wider family, friends and networks of support can help the world feel a little bigger than it otherwise might!

Making the most of digital devices

With social distancing, we’ve all turned to technology for connections. We’re also using social media to keep in touch with relatives and friends and, probably, allowing more TV and gaming for children of all ages to get some precious time to ourselves!

Spending more time at home with the kids will give you the chance to ensure you are managing their time on digital devices and the quality of media we are consuming. This is a great time to talk to your children about their use of technology and explore issues like language development in very young children. 

Take time out for yourself away from the use of devices, taking screen breaks and giving your attention when it’s asked for makes it more likely that your children will do the same.

Play: keep moving and be forever young!

Everyone should take breaks from sitting or lying down using devices. It’s good to get up and move about a bit. #sitlessmovemore and playing with the kids is one of the most effective and fun ways of exercising for the whole family.

Our children and young people are missing their friends. They are wired for, and will seek out, connection and creativity in the most adverse of circumstances. Encouraging siblings of all ages to play and be active together can help children cope with the stresses and anxieties they are exposed to and is great way for maintaining some independence from adults. As a parent, your role is to make sure there is time for play and exercise without over supervising or structuring what happens. 

Be kind to yourself

Being calm is a superpower! You might have heard that soundbite before but it’s true. It’s also just as contagious as anxiety. Taking time to breathe slowly and deeply can regulate your heart beat, reduce feelings of panic and stop the flow of the stress hormone cortisol to the brain. Give it a try.

These are difficult times. Parents shouldn’t feel pressured to be more productive, to become teachers, to consume all of the available information on COVID-19.  Focusing on keeping yourself and your family safe, healthy and happy is enough.  You can try the tips we’ve included here or look to the sources below for more guidance.

We actually are all in this together. We all must do it to get through it.

Useful links:

PHA Take 5 Steps to Wellbeing While You Stay at Home

Playboard Guidance on the Importance of Play

Parenting NI on Co-Parenting During the Coronavirus

The Incredible Years® Notes on Keeping Calm and Providing Supportive Parenting During the Coronavirus

Bruce Perry’s Pandemic Toolkit for Parents

To view our complete series of COVID-19 blogs, click here.

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