Nathan Wallis: Top tips for looking after kids at Level 3
Published in The New Zealand Herald on 4 May, 2020. Written by Neuroscience educator and child development expert Nathan Wallis.
The transition to Level 3 may well have been music to the ears of many parents around New Zealand – light at the end of the tunnel.
Yet, with many of the Level 4 restrictions remaining in place, the change will likely have little immediate impact (in practical terms) for many around the country. In fact, after five weeks in full lockdown, some may be wondering how they're going to make it through the home stretch.
How do I keep the kids entertained? How will I meet all my work and family commitments while we're all at home together – particularly if work demands are starting to ramp up again? What can I do to keep my family safe and happy (and sane)?
Where do I even start when it comes to explaining the situation to my little ones?
Here are some broad tips to consider, for some of the most common concerns Kiwi families are facing right now:
Helping kids build resilience
The most important thing you can do to boost your child's resilience, is to model resilience yourself. Don't underestimate how much your children see you as an emotional barometer.
Parents need to be especially mindful of the way they're talking about the situation to (and in front of) their kids. If your child expresses fear, concern, sadness or loneliness – it's important to acknowledge that. These are scary and isolating times and it's totally normal to be feeling anxious. Children need to feel able to express these emotions.
But rather than dwelling on the bad stuff, it's imperative to stay focused on the positive action being taken (like the lockdown restrictions) and how proud we are to live in a country that continues to lead the way for many others in terms of responding to this pandemic.
To demonstrate resilience, you'll need to prioritise taking time out to look after yourself. Put your own oxygen mask on, before you help others, as the saying goes.
That could be 20 minutes in the bath or an uninterrupted half hour with your partner (not in the distracted way we often do when we're both trying to look after the kids). You need to have an outlet to unwind as well, if you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed by what's going on – so you can continue to role-model a positive response for your kids.
Taking care of yourself (and your family) means continuing to prioritise little things like making sure everyone's getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and exercising every day.
Thankfully, this is getting easier now we're able to get out and do more of the things we love once again - as long as we do them safely and abide by social distancing rules.
Combined, these habits all have a big impact on our resilience and wellbeing – so it's important not to let them slip, just when we need them the most.
As some schools start to re-open for children of essential workers and other learning support measures are put in place, learning will be less of an issue for a number of families.
It's important for parents to know that, for most kids, changes to where and how they're learning over the coming weeks won't be life-changing – but the quality of the memories they have formed (and will form) over this time spent at home with family, definitely will be.
The most valuable thing for young children (up to the age of eight) is to be in an environment where they have the chance to realise that they enjoy learning. So, for little ones, support their more formal learning by letting go of cognitive outcomes and milestones – and focus on joy.
Exercise the creative brain – singing, dancing, baking, performing skits, gardening, learning a musical instrument or new language together. It might look like they're just having fun but, from a brain development perspective, this sort of activity is absolutely invaluable.
If you have kids in years 11-13, who are working towards key assessments and exams this year, this time will be more critical. At this age, it's about empowering them to take charge of their own learning – they will know where they need to be spending their time, with the guidance and support of their teachers. The best thing parents can do is just to nurture and support that, such as by making sure children have a quiet space where they can focus, or by bringing study snacks throughout the day.
As far as possible, try not to multi-task. Constantly splitting your attention between work and looking after your kids at the same time will leave you frustrated, the kids frustrated – and nobody will feel like their cup is full.
Most of the time, kids will get off your case if you give them a clear indication of when you can be completely available to spend time with them – and then stick to it. It's about ensuring this time is regular and predictable, so they know they can count on it happening.
You'll probably need to let them use devices when you're working, so try to stay device-free when you're spending time together with them.
Social connection is the juice that promotes mental wellbeing – because it releases peptides and serotonin, which make us happy. While Level 3 means we can extend our bubble slightly, now is not the time to pick up our usual social routines.
Teenagers are likely to be feeling the lack of face-to-face connection most of all; it's between the ages of 12-25 when we have the strongest focus on our peers.
The key thing for parents is that when it comes to screen time - the more interactive it is, the less harmful it is. So, don't worry if they're spending a few hours a day chatting to friends on Skype or Facetime.
It's also important to continue creating opportunities for kids to stay connected with other, absent members of your family - particularly older family members like grandparents who are more likely to be facing social isolation during this time. This can be as simple as regular phone calls or even a virtual morning tea or dinner date.
During times like these, we need to draw on everything we can to help us build up our resilience. That means upping our self-care, prioritising our health and staying connected – because the more we do that, the less we're likely to feel the negative impact of the situation.
The good news is, under Level 3, we still have (arguably) more time than ever to prioritise our health and wellbeing – so let's use that time wisely.