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Supporting your child’s social-emotional development during the COVID-19 pandemic

Each time I walk past this closed playground, I feel not only nostalgia, but also an element of concern; thinking of all the young children that are perhaps missing out on a vital part of their social-emotional development as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. My own children spent many hours in this playground on their way to and from kindergarten. Even now, my 20-year old tells me that it was here that she learnt so many important social-emotional skills such as patience (waiting for a turn on the swing), kindness (helping those who could not managed to climb up the slide), sharing (giving others a turn), resilience (trying again and again to master the equipment).

While the medical and physical consequences of COVID-19 may be sparing the children, there is little known about the consequences on their social and emotional development.  School closure, the cancellation of many events, quarantining, social distancing, the realities and the uncertainties of COVID-19 have almost certainly affected children socially and emotionally.

There was a time when children would complain about having to go to school, many of them thinking that they would much rather stay at home. And now that schools are closed (or limited attendance in the case of Hong Kong), and learning is online, they are missing their friends, their teachers and the school environment. It is an emotionally challenging time for them, and for their parents and teachers alike! Schools offer much more than education, they offer social contact, exercise and for some children, mental health services. School closure quite clearly disrupts the everyday functioning of children, parents and teachers. Recent studies have suggested that social isolation can lead to depression and causes mental health risks for children (e.g. stress, anxiety, family conflict) during and after the pandemic. There is evidence showing an increase behavioural problems (e.g. aggression, irritability, inattention) in children during the COVID-19 pandemic, with home-schooling being the factor that had the strongest negative effect. That said, a study in China found that 76% of respondents felt home-schooling was acceptable although the teachers expressed concern over the students’ interest, focus and academic performance and 95% of the parents were concerned about their children’s eyesight. However, almost 20% of the students were thought to have emotional and behavioural issues, while parent and teacher anxiety levels were higher than usual.  In a recent Japanese study, results demonstrated that children were actually more prosocial and developed better digital skills during the pandemic, although they experienced more problems in their peer relationships.

The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” suggests that an entire community of people must interact with children for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. Indeed, children do not develop in isolation. Their interactions with family, home, school, community and society play important role in their social-emotional and moral development.  Bronfenbrenner, a renowned developmental psychologist, proposes that children develop as a result of interactions between several systems including culture, schooling, peer relationships and families. Changes in one system therefore directly or indirectly affects the child’s development. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of government rulings, parental wellbeing and employment and online schooling, can in turn significantly affect the child’s cognitive, social and emotional development. In addition, in the expatriate population in Hong Kong, who are far from family support, there is the real possibility and concern of parents being separated from their children should they be tested positive for COVID-19.

The unpredictability of the virus may lead to fear and anxiety; school closure and social distancing produce feelings of loneliness and isolation, while the loss of a family member to the disease can cause long-term grief and trauma. It isn’t clear at this point how this daily reality will affect the social-emotional wellbeing of children and teens over time. Some experts in the field suggest that while some children will come out of this with increased resilience, others may experience long-term trauma which will impair their ability, making them overly cautious in the future. What is very clear is that the social and emotional wellbeing of our children are just as important as their physical health..

Social- emotional and moral development is the process by which a child learns to interact with others around them. As they develop and perceive their own individuality within their community, they also gain skills to communicate with other people and process their actions. Social-emotional development most often refers to how a child develops friendships and other relationships, as well how a child handles conflict with peers. These skills in turn influence success at school, at home, in communities and in society.

And while we may not yet fully appreciate the long-term mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children, we can view this as an opportunity to begin addressing their social-emotional needs and promote healthy development, even in the midst of a global crisis.

There are a number of ways we can mitigate the stress and support children’s social-emotional development during this time.

Communication and Media

Limit their news consumption but keep them informed.

  • Allow children to voice their concerns.
  • Reassure them that they are safe and answer their questions age-appropriately.
  • Keep them informed about what is going on, but keep it simple and developmentally appropriate.
  • Where possible, distinguish facts from rumours and misinformation.

Resources:

 https://go.brainpop.com/coronavirus

 https://drive.google.com/file/d/1hIcpNBehI2olRFs0UUkYQ76IyctCyIKT/view?usp=drivesdk

https://www.who.int/

https://www.coronavirus.gov.hk/eng/index.html

Encourage identifying and expressing emotions

  • Provide space for children to express their feelings. Initiate conversations to find out how your child is feeling. How do you feel about your classes being online? Do you miss seeing your friends? Are you finding it hard to stay focused?And then talk about these feelings.
  • It is important that children are able to identify how they are feeling. Anxious, lonely, sad? This technique is referred to a “name it to tame it”.
  • Follow your child’s lead when it comes to having conversations about COVID-19. Some children may not want to talk about it or may feel overwhelmed with certain topics.
  • Another way children can express their feelings is through art. Dancing, performing a skit, drawing pictures of even writing songs that depict their feelings.
  • Children’s reactions will be influenced by your own reaction, so model a calm, common-sense approach.
  • Focus on your own emotions and well-being. Be patient with yourself and let go of perfectionism. There are positives that can come from this change.

Make Learning Fun

  • Consider creating learning bubbles where possible. Children often learn better with others.
  • Offer Choices – this provides your child with a sense of autonomy and ownership of their learning. In this way, they will then be more intrinsically motivated to learn.
  • Incorporate Games and Creativity e.g. baking can be used to teach measurement, temperature and Chemistry; art can be used to teach perspective, colours etc.

Technology can be your friend:

  • My children learnt so much from The Magic School Bus, so much so that my daughter, now studying genetics, claims that her interest in Biology stemmed from Mrs. Grizzle and her field trips!
  • BBC bitesize offers lessons full of videos, quizzes and practice activities that will help with home learning (https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize)

Resources:

 https://www.cdt.com.hk/optimising-distance-learning/

Provide activities that reduce the effects of stress and anxiety.

  • Physical activity: Exercise and physical activity produces endorphins, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, which provide anti-anxiety effects.
  • Yoga: Yoga combines physical poses, controlled breathing, and meditation to prevent or reduce anxiety.
  • Get into nature: Being in nature relieves stress and improves physical health. Nature has been found to have positive effects on children with attention deficit disorder, asthma, and obesity,
  • MindfulnessMindfulness is effective at restoring emotional balance. Increasing awareness of your thoughts, needs, and emotions can help your child develop a healthier response to stress.
  • Guided imagery: Using your imagination to “escape” to a calm and peaceful place can help to relieve stress.
  • Laugh every day: Find something to laugh about every day, even if it is a YouTube video. Writing down funny or strange things that happen can help to create a positive narrative around this intense experience.

Encourage children to stay social and connected

As social beings, social connection is vital to maintaining good mental health. However, during COVID-19, we are expected to maintain social distancing from friends and loved ones. This may lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness and, ultimately, to mental-health issues. Although physical distancing is encouraged, there are other ways that we can ensure our children feel socially connected e.g. virtual play dates, start an online book or movie club, or even plan socially distanced walks or bike rides.

Supporting Social Development

Parents can make a difference when it comes to social development. Research has shown that everyday experiences with parents are fundamental to a child’s developing social skill-set.  By modelling healthy relationships and staying connected with your child, you can help them relate to the people around them in positive, beneficial ways.

Here are some helpful tips a parent can use to support their child’s social development.

Pre-schoolers: 

  • Help your child express their emotions by talking through what they are feeling.
  • Demonstrate your own love through words and physical affection. This is a good way to begin teaching a child how to express other emotions as well.
  • Play with your child in a “peer-like” way to encourage cooperative play. This is helpful when they are in a group environment and have to share toys and cooperate.
  • Provide examples of your trust in others, such as your own friendships or other relationships.

School children:

  • Talk with your child about social relationships and values by asking them their friends and their interactions (even if it is online).
  • Allow children the opportunity to discuss social conflicts and problem-solve their reactions/actions.
  • Discuss the subject of bullying and harassment, both in person and on social media.
  • Allow older children to work out everyday problems on their own.
  • Keep the lines of communication open—as a parent, you want to make yourself available to listen and support your child in non-judgmental ways.

Films that can support children’s moral, social and emotional development

Inside Out (Self-control, Teamwork, Empathy, Integrity)

This modern animated classic about emotions, Inside Out will help children understand the power of our feelings and why it’s important to express them — whether it’s happiness, fear, or regret.

My Little Pony  – “Friendship is magic” (Friendship, Generosity, Courage)

This flash-animated fantasy television series teaches about friendship, generosity and courage amoungst others. Primarily aimed at young girls, this can be viewed and discussed in terms of character strengths displayed and perspectives of others.

WONDER (Empathy, Perseverance and Bullying)

This is a story of a fifth-grader born with a facial abnormality.  Bullying is a strong focus in the film, and students can talk about why it’s important to try to understand what their peers are going through and when to stand up for others.

Black Panther (Courage, Integrity, Teamwork)

This popular Marvel superhero movie is a great opportunity to take a film that children already love and show them how their favourite characters handle integrity, decisiveness, and teamwork. As a family, you could also discuss the effect the film has had in African American communities and why it has produced such gratitude and pride.

The Lorax (Environmental Awareness)

An animate film based on Dr. Seuss’s  The Lorax is not only a well loved story, but also a cautionary tale with a powerful message, from which we can all learn. We need to respect nature and our natural resources, and fight to protect them, not destroy them, because once they are gone – that might be it, there might not be any magic seeds left to rejuvenate them.

Adopt a Strength-based approach to parenting

A strength-based approach focuses on the positive attributes of a child rather than the negative. This approach allows for the right conditions for a child to see themselves at their best, to see the value that they bring by just being themselves. In fact, children are more likely to use their strengths to effectively cope with minor stress in their life if they have parents who adopt a strength-based approach to parenting. When children use their strengths, they enjoy what they are doing; the focus is on the process rather than on the outcome of the activity. Lea Waters, in her book The Strength Switch, suggests that parents ask themselves these three questions to tune in to your child’s strengths as you watch your child in their day-to-day life:

Do you see performance? Notice if your child shows above-age levels of rapid learning, achievement, success.

Do you see energy? Notice if your child shows abundant energy when using their strength.

Do you see high use? Notice what your child chooses to do in their spare time, how often they engage in an activity and how they speak about the activity.

If you feel that you are not able to identify the strengths of your child, there are a number of ways to assess strengths for those parents interested in doing this formally. (see resources below).

Resources:

Clifton Strengths Finder (CSF): https://www.gallup.com/cliftonstrengths/en/252137/home.aspx

VIA Youth Survey: https://www.viacharacter.org/

Every cloud has a silver lining – even COVID-19

  • We have surely all learnt lessons in better hygiene that will hopefully become lasting habits.
  • We have been made to slow down a little bit, take a breath and appreciate the stillness. In frenetic Hong Kong, this is something most of us rarely experience.
  • We have got to know one another and our neighbours very well and perhaps developed a stronger sense of community as a result.
  • Pollution levels have drastically improved. This is perhaps a reminder to us what blue skies look like and that our current economic model does not come without significant costs to the planet.
  • Most importantly, we have been reminded of our essential humanity, our interconnectedness to one another. The coronavirus does not pay attention to borders, passports or politics. We are all in this together.

We will be dealing with this COVID-19 storm and its aftermath for an unknown period of time. The uncertainty is tough, the economic consequences brutal, the loss of loved ones tragic. This is our current reality and, for the most part, beyond our control. What we can control, however, is our reaction to it. Let us do what we can to support our children –  their future and ours.

There is limited evidence on COVID-19’s long-term mental-health effects on children and adolescents, but we can do our best to support their social-emotional health during this time. In adopting a strength-based approach we can help our children emerge from pandemic with stronger social-emotional skills, increased resilience and most importantly, hope for the future.

Odyssey offers strength-based approach webinars and workshops to parents and guardians that can help them support their children in developing social-emotional skills. Please contact Dr. Judy Blaine (judy@odyssey.net.za) for further information.