It has been a busy week for adolescent therapist Alicia Drummond. As soon as the government announced schools were closing, parents and teachers started begging her for advice about teenagers cut adrift from their friends, life goals and daily routines. “There’s suddenly a massive demand from parents wanting to know what to do.”
She is hosting a webinar this week on “parenting in isolation” via her website, teentips.co.uk, and says the first 10 spaces sold out in five minutes. “Parents are really worried – and I’ve had schools on the phone saying: ‘Please can you do something on how to cope with everyone being at home.’”
Couples have also been consulting marriage counsellor Deborah Parker on how they can both work from home, with their children in the house all day, and not end up in the divorce courts. “Something I’ve been discussing with couples is that this particular unprecedented scenario is very much teetering on either explosion or irreparable damage within a family. Or, the collectiveness of the family will actually help heal all those times of tiredness and stress, when couples don’t see each other and have grown apart.”
For this reason, it’s vital parents are realistic about the hours they can work from home while their kids are off school. “Couples should concentrate first and foremost on their children,” says Parker. “If work takes precedence, then children often feel ignored or unappreciated. That can lead to adverse behaviour, negative feedback and playing up … and daily life for couples can become just too overwhelming.”
To ease these tensions, she recommends parents work in shifts, taking turns to supervise the children, and set aside time to chat and listen to each other’s concerns each day, in a room away from the kids.
Nerys Hughes, clinical director of Whole Child Therapy, acknowledges that creating a routine for children is important. But she warns parents against taking on the role of their child’s teacher if it causes conflict, not least because stress hormones can make people more susceptible to a viral infection. “Your number one job as a parent at the moment is to keep your children well and that means looking after their mental health as well as their physical health,” she says.
Instead of worrying that children are not doing enough schoolwork, parents should view the enforced break as an opportunity for some child-led, individualised learning, which most schools struggle to offer. “I would say to the child: let’s write down all the different things that you could use this time to learn, do and experience. Then every morning, ask them to put a schedule together, made up of those things,” says Hughes.
Children and teenagers should also be allowed a few “duvet days” where they can do whatever they want. That way, they may be more willing to take a structured educational approach on other days – and, for example, learn a new skill. “You could say to them: you are so lucky. You are one of the few year groups ever to get this opportunity. How are you going to use it?” says Drummond. Teens may not yet have twigged that, in the future, universities or employers will be asking them how they spent their time off.
Hughes predicts that the three main things that children are going to miss are their usual routine, their chance to connect with their community and their opportunities to be successful and accomplish things. “We need roles, identity and productivity, even from the age of three.”
One way parents can help even young children to feel productive while they are at home is to enable them to help out with housework or cooking. “It doesn’t matter if the accomplishment is curriculum-based. It can be learning to make mum a cup of tea, putting pasta in a bowl or drawing a picture for someone so they feel connected to the people they are missing. Even if that gift never gets given, because you are self-isolating, the child has felt that moment of connection.”
Teenagers in particular may miss their friends terribly and, due to their adolescent brains, feel invincible and omnipotent in the face of the virus, warns Drummond. “They’re wired for experimentation, without the ability to weigh up long-term outcomes.” Because they may impulsively decide to take risks, it’s worth explaining why guidelines need to be followed.
“My rule of thumb with parenting teenagers is: ask, don’t tell. So ask them: why do you think we’re isolating? What do you think the ramifications of you meeting up with your friends might be?” If they do sneak out, don’t turn it into a big drama.
“Instead, reiterate why it’s important that they don’t do it again.”
Whatever happens, don’t try to try to punish your teen by taking away their tech. “What we have to be deeply careful of is not letting them become too isolated. We all know that isolation has an impact on people’s mental health, and that’s particularly true for adolescents.” Encourage them to stay connected to their friends virtually, in a healthy way, rather than going out and putting other people at risk.
It’s also important to keep children informed about matters in the wider world that affect them, says Parker. “Often, children prefer to be told what is going on than to be suddenly given the shocking news that grandma’s passed away because she got the virus.”