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How to keep your kids connected and happy during social distancing

With social distancing restrictions easing, but not disappearing, young children may start to feel frustrated. Linda Opie, head of Health and Wellbeing at HCF, Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist at Calm Kid Central and director of Developing Minds Psychology, and Brigid Walsh, national wellbeing manager at Netball Australia suggest some helpful ways parents can help keep kids connected to their friends.

When the COVID-19 social restrictions came into force, there was a flurry of ideas about how we could make sure our children stayed connected to their friends and teammates.

Can’t go to netball practice? No problem. Let’s set up a Zoom chat with your team. Missing out on the physical thrill of scoring a goal? How about an online challenge with friends to see who can do the most jumping jacks in under a minute?

Friends, teachers, coaches and online resources gave parents of young kids so many ideas, some of the restrictions might even have felt like a bit of fun. At first.

However, as we’ve moved into the next term of schooling – and a new way of life – the novelty of only seeing friends online may be wearing off. For parents, coming up with new and engaging ways to make sure our children stay connected to their lives and activities before the pandemic is getting harder, but the importance of it has never been greater.

While we can’t know for sure when ‘normal’ life may resume, or when the next school excursion or netball match might be, there are still things we can do to help kids stay happy and connected.

My kids keep asking when they can go back to netball practice, even though they talk to their teammates on Zoom every week. Why is face-to-face contact so important?

The social connection created by seeing friends in the flesh is important for a young child’s development, self-esteem and identity.

“Children may feel a real sense of loss and sadness from not seeing their friends,” says Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist at Calm Kid Central, a partner in HCF’s new Mental Health and Wellbeing Support Program that helps kids aged 4–11 understand and better manage their feelings. “Creative play with friends also helps to develop social skills, and if children miss that for too long, it’s not good for their development.”

Brigid Walsh, national wellbeing manager of Netball Australia, agrees. “Team sports in particular provide social connection, friendships outside of your usual tribe, and a sense of community.

“A team can be part of an increased support network. You celebrate together, cry together – you become soul sisters and soul mates.”

While having more friends or scoring a winning goal might feel good, some advantages of team play are more subtle, but just as important, says Brigid.

“You learn positive values, like teamwork, collaboration, being a good sport, and how to respect authority and your opponents. And it’s really fun.”

Although your child may not be able to see or play with their team at the moment, there are ways to help them connect. One way is to chat to their coach or other parents in the same situation and brainstorm some creative ways to keep the team spirit alive. Or you can read and save ‘3 easy ways to help kids connect without using screens in case you need some inspiration later.

My kids loved talking to their friends on FaceTime at first, but now they don’t want to. What’s changed?

The current recommendation in Australia around screen time is children under the age of two should have none, and other children should have a maximum of two hours a day.

However, with the cancellation of school, weekly netball games and other activities, some households may have relaxed these rules and started to encourage even very young children to seek social connection online.

If your child initially enjoyed learning and chatting with teammates online, but doesn’t anymore, there could be a few factors at play. The novelty may simply have worn off, and with the move to online learning, the ‘fun’ aspect of using digital technology may have faded.

However, there could be a more serious reason, says Linda Opie, head of Health and Wellbeing at HCF. “Technology can be great, but it needs to be closely supervised to prevent online bullying.”

In Australia, 15 per cent of children admit to having behaved in a negative way – like name calling or deliberate exclusion – towards a peer online.

“Something as simple as a thumbs up or down, or a comment on how someone is playing a game can be hurtful. Parental supervision can help to stop things getting out of control. Try limiting the number of sessions and be present when a child is talking to others online.”

Try one of the following ways to help your child connect to their friends and community away from their iPad:

Write a letter: Putting pen to paper will give your child a specific task to focus on and help them connect to a friend they’re missing.

Make a call: Encourage your child to pick up the phone to call a grandparent or friend. This allows them to work on their communication skills and exchange information in a different way.

Show a little Uncommon Care: Drawing a picture, writing a story, or baking some cookies for a friend or neighbour will give your child something practical to do, plus they will also get the benefit from the knowledge that they’ve done something kind for someone else. Download our ‘THANK YOU’ activity sheet for your child to get them started.

My child was so excited about netball this year. How can I keep her enthusiasm alive when she can’t play?

A sense of disappointment at missing out on weekly sessions with teammates is normal for young children. Brigid says netball’s elite athletes feel the same way and have come up with new ways to stay connected to their team and the sport at a time when they can’t practise or compete.

“Things like sending videos and pictures of their home gym set-up or training methods to their coaches help to maintain contact.

“Many players are also using humour to support their own and their teammates’ mental health and wellbeing. Sharing a funny video or posting a new trick keeps that sense of community and connection going.”

Brigid suggests using some of the following resources to help your child stay connected to the sport they love, plus they can share the activities they complete with their friends:

Super Netball Fan Zone: For colouring, puzzles and more, go to Suncorp Super Netball and click on ‘Rebound’.

NetSetGO at Home: Check out Netball Australia’s official starter program for kids, with a series of fun, online netball training activities at Netball Australia.

My child is nervous about going back to school. How can I help him to feel happier about it?

For some children, extra time at home with mum and dad, and less peer interaction, is a welcome change, and they could start to feel anxious about returning to school and other weekly activities.

Equally, a child who started a new school at the start of Term 1, or a kindy student who only had six weeks to get used to school, different friends and a new way of learning, may feel anxious at having to return to routines they never had the chance to feel comfortable with.

“For children who don’t love going to school, the thought of going back one day a week may incite some anxiety. They’re out of practice coping with something they find stressful, so their resilience is down,” says Kirrilie. “Make a plan with them about how to cope with and prevent those anxious feelings. Slow breathing and body relaxing techniques can help, as can teaching them how to keep their brain busy on other things.”

Linda agrees, saying even children who are usually happy at school may have some concerns.

“Because they may not be going back to school full-time, they might have questions around whether their friends will be there, and if not, who will they play with?

“Reassure them that everyone is in the same situation, not just them. Revert to the positives: ‘You’ll have the chance to make new friends and play with people you haven’t before.’ And highlight the sameness: ‘It’s the same school, the same playground, your same lunchbox.’ Remind them that not everything will be different.”

It feels like everyone in our house is unsettled. How can I help my kids to feel happier?

Over recent weeks there has been a lot of talk about everything we’re missing out on. “We can’t go to school, our holiday was cancelled, my birthday party was postponed, and I’m missing out on my netball training...” With so much negativity, it’s no surprise the overarching mood isn’t great.

Try to refocus the angle. Instead of worrying about what we can’t do, encourage children to recognise the things we can do, and ask them to identify if there are some changes brought about by COVID-19 they might want to continue.

“Focus on the positives that COVID-19 has unexpectedly brought,” says Linda. “Like the extra time you get to spend as a family, more time to play with a pet, or being able to sleep in a little later.”

Brigid agrees, citing the positives that have come out of the current crisis from our elite players.

“Everyone has rallied,” she says, referring to the WhatsApp groups, social posts and shared information that players are using to help each other, and fans, stay healthy and positive.

“If your child has used this time to learn a new skill – such as mastering tying their shoelaces or learning how to ride a bike or scoring a netball goal from a further distance – write it down and put the list on the fridge as a visual reminder of everything they’ve gained,” says Linda.

Encourage your children to stay connected and active in as many ways as possible, so they, and their friends and teammates, come through this difficult time together.

Things to remember when keeping kids socially connected

  • The cancellation of many social activities like school and netball practice may have affected children in different ways. A more outgoing child may feel a real sense of loss, while a more introverted child may relish the extra time they’re spending at home.
  • A return to some social activities could evoke some tricky feelings for children, including fear and nervousness. Reassure them everyone is in the same situation.
  • Social contact with friends can be achieved both on and offline. Encourage your child to try both and to mix up the way they contact their friends and teammates.
  • Remind your child of some good things to have come from the changes – like more family time – and suggest maintaining those changes moving forwards.

If you feel that you, or your child, need extra support there are resources and experts who can help.

Tips for parents - 3 ways to help kids connect away from screens

623.7KB PDF

Activity Sheet - Thank-you moment

169.5KB PDF

FEATURED EXPERTS

Linda Opie, head of Health and Wellbeing, HCF
Linda is passionate about mental health and spearheaded the implementation of HCF’s new Mental Health and Wellbeing Support Program, including its partnership with Calm Kid Central. Linda has spent more than 17 years creating health and wellness solutions, and as a mum to two young boys, she has both a personal and professional commitment to building a healthier, happier next generation.

Brigid Walsh, national wellbeing manager, Netball Australia
HCF and Netball Australia are both trusted by Aussies, and go above and beyond to put people first. Stepping in to her role at Netball Australia just weeks before the COVID-19 crisis hit Australia, Brigid had a unique start as its first national wellbeing manager. With a career spanning 20 years and qualifications in applied science, management, health and wellness coaching, and yoga, Brigid is committed to improving the physical and mental health of individuals, workplaces and communities.

Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist at Calm Kid Central and director of Developing Minds Psychology
With more than 24 years of experience as a psychologist, Kirrilie is integral to the team at Calm Kid Central and part of the HCF family. Calm Kid Central supports children aged between 4–11, and their parents, as they cope with ‘big feelings’. A member of the Australian Psychological Society and the College of Clinical Psychologists, Kirrilie provides seminars and training for young people, teachers and health professionals around Australia. She’s also the author of three books for young people.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published in June 2020

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