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“Why is this happening?” How to navigate big changes for young kids

In times of upheaval our children can feel insecure, worried or scared about what’s happening, and what’s to come. We asked experts Linda Opie, head of Health and Wellbeing at HCF, Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist at Calm Kid Central, and Brigid Walsh, national wellbeing manager at Netball Australia, for some advice for parents on helping our kids get through the tough times.

From missing out on their weekly netball coaching sessions to being asked to stay home from school, our children have experienced a lot of disruption to their daily lives because of COVID-19.

And while some young people have adapted easily, others are struggling with this new normal. Knowing how to talk to them about how they feel and giving them tools and activities to cope are important skills for all parents.

UNDERSTANDING YOUR PLAYERS: WHAT’S CHANGED FOR KIDS DUE TO COVID-19?

The changes in response to COVID-19 happened almost overnight, giving parents little time to prepare themselves, let alone their children.

While younger kids may not have much access to the news or social media, they would still have been very aware of the shift in daily life.

“Children aged between five and 10 are very intuitive,” says Linda Opie, head of Health and Wellbeing at HCF. “While they may not have the verbal skills to communicate what’s happening, they can feel it.”

A significant change for children has been the loss of social connection with their peers.

“For active kids, extrovert kids, or those who play sports every week, social connection is critical,” says Linda. “They will be feeling the loss of the energy they get from their friends and playing sports, the positive reinforcement they get from peers through sharing a joke, and the sharing and learning in their own language.”

Similarly, some of our kids’ sporting heroes are experiencing the same feelings. COVID-19 hit just as our elite netball players were about to start the new season, and they felt the loss in a big way, says Brigid Walsh, national wellbeing manager at Netball Australia.

“It was a huge shock. They were primed to play and then were told the competition was deferred. There were a whole range of emotions – some were stoic but most were in disbelief, and disappointed and frustrated not to be able to play. Anxiety was a big one. And a real feeling of, ‘How do I make sense of this?’”

HOW TO NAIL A PEP TALK

Trying to reassure our children everything will be all right is challenging when we don’t have all the answers ourselves.

“Being empathic is a good strategy,” says Kirrilie Smout, clinical psychologist at Calm Kid Central. Calm Kid Central recently partnered with HCF to help kids aged 4–11 understand and better manage their feelings.

“If we dismiss or invalidate their concerns, perhaps by saying something like ‘It’s not a big deal’ or ‘It’s nothing for you to worry about’, we risk sending a message to kids that they shouldn’t talk about problems. It also sends the message that they should ignore those signals that tell them when something isn’t right, and that those signals aren’t actually real.”

If a child asks a tricky question about when they can return to netball training, Kirrilie recommends keeping the answer honest, short and to the point. “Say something like ‘That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer right now, but the doctors and the government are trying to work it out.’”

Kirrilie also says there’s a limit to how much information kids need. “Once you’ve answered their questions, it’s okay to change the topic by saying something like ‘Let’s make our brains busy with something else now.’”

GETTING KIDS TO OPEN UP ABOUT HOW THEY FEEL

While some children might ask a million questions about what’s happening around school, sports and the world at large, others may not. And this isn’t always a bad thing, says Kirrilie.

“Adults use language a lot more than kids. Just because they’re not talking about how they feel doesn’t mean they’re not coping.”

However, if you sense your child is struggling with not seeing their friends, or missing their weekly netball games, there are ways to help them open up.

“Start a conversation in an informal way, don’t make it obvious,” says Linda. “Maybe while having a water break on a bike ride, while on a bushwalk or at mealtimes when the whole family – parents, too – can talk about their day and how they feel.”

Kirrilie agrees. “Chatting over a board game or while playing netball in the backyard will feel less forced and kids are more likely to open up.”

REWRITING THE ROUTINE RULEBOOK

Having a routine can be one thing that helps children feel happier and less stressed.

“Routine is a primary coping mechanism, not just for kids, but also parents,” says Linda.

One of the first things Netball Australia did for its elite players once COVID-19 restrictions were introduced was to establish a training program from home.

“Maintaining routine and structure was paramount in looking after how our players were feeling,” says Brigid. “Each player was given a personalised training program, which included regular check-ins with their teammates, as well as one-on-ones with a coach or support person.”

Use some of the following ways to help create a new routine at home:

  • Have visible routines: Try a magnetic board, chalkboard or our weekly planner to lay out some structures around learning, snacks and play.
  • Set regular times for meals, daily exercise and play time: As well as creating a pattern for the day, those are the times when you can check in to see how your kids are feeling.
  • Get their input: Make them part of the decision-making around daily structures and routine. Ask them, “What do you think? What would you like to do today?”
  • Set up a dedicated space to learn: Allow them to pitch in by arranging the desk, books, and other items. This gives kids some control and a place that belongs to them.
  • Make them the leader of the exercise: Put them in charge. Let them decide the bike route. Get them to design an obstacle course or plan a netball drills session.
  • Ask for their help around the house: Get kids involved with things they don’t normally do, like chopping vegies for dinner, stripping the beds or watering the plants.
  • Don’t make the routines too strict. Be kind to yourselves. Some days you might get all the schoolwork done, do a bike ride, finish a puzzle and cook a great dinner. Some days you won’t, and that’s okay.

You can print off our weekly planner – or even use it as a template and draw your own – to get you started.

PLAYING THE LONG GAME

We can help our children feel happier by helping them focus on the things they can control, says Brigid.

“When faced with uncertainty, you can only work with what you know. Write down what you can control. For a player it might be the times they can train. For a child it might be when they want to do schoolwork or play.”

Brigid says children may also benefit from an approach elite players use to navigate tough times.

“During times of change or challenge, like those we’re facing currently, we get better at being resilient. It’s a skill we learn, and some of our greatest learnings can come from the toughest times. Think of a time when things were tough and how you got through it then. Knowing this will help you see that you can come back from this time, and that your resilience toolkit is being better equipped.”

Using Brigid’s model, we’ve come up with three simple strategies you can save on your phone or print off, which can help you coach your child and reframe the way they’re tackling big changes.  

These exercises can help children realise change isn’t always a scary thing, and make them feel better about the future.

Things to remember when navigating big changes with young children

  • Unexpected change or upheaval can make some children feel insecure, worried or even scared about the present and the future.
  • Let your child know you understand how they’re feeling and make yourself available to talk about what’s on their mind.
  • Establish a new routine at home to give your child a sense of predictability and security around the everyday things like meal times, learning and exercise.
  • Encourage your child to focus on what makes them happy and help them understand life won’t always be like this.

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

Tips for Parents - Helping Kids Feel Better About the Future

399.1KB PDF

Activity Sheet - Creating a Routine

863.5KB 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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