I have two teenagers; one in Y13, who is sitting A’ levels next year, the other Y10, and preparing for GCSE’s. Whilst I’m glad that we weren’t caught up in the exam debacle this summer, we still have no idea what next year will bring, or what Covid-19 still has in store for us. This alone can stir the “What if”s at two in the morning!
For us as a family we were lucky; lockdown was a relatively peaceful affair. We settled into a routine of home-school and work. We found our balance of family and alone time. We enjoyed discussions and games. We fell out and fell back in. Life ticked on methodically.
Now after months of lockdown, with Covid still lurking, our children will be thrown back into school, but this will not be school as they remember.
In addition to the highs and lows of daily school life, they will be dealing with new school rules, changed routines, classroom bubbles, as well as new teachers and, in some cases, new schools.
For many, these changes will inevitably create anxiety, especially given the school’s new social distancing and hygiene measures.
So, this is what I’m reminding myself about my children at 2 am; and these are 3 things that I would recommend you think about with yours.
Every child is different. I know we know that, but sometimes it’s hard not to compare Billy with Bertie. Go against the grain, and try not to!
Some children will be racing back to school. Ready to be back in a routine and their studies, excited to see their friends – I have one of those.
For others it will bring strong emotions; anxiety at being separated and fear of the changes ahead. There may be anger in returning to a system that brings unhappiness and stress – I also have one of those.
When the ‘Triune Brain Theory of Evolution’, by the neuroscientist Paul D Maclean, found me, it was an epiphany moment. It spoke to me in ways that, as a non-scientist, I could grasp and understand. My ongoing research in all things ‘brain’ brings constant revelations in human behaviour.
The theory, in an absolute nutshell, is this: the brain developed in three stages over millions and millions of years. Firstly, the Reptilian Brain – Survival/Action Brain. This kept the heart beating and lungs breathing. Then came the Limbic System – Emotional Brain. This made us social beings, creating memories and emotions and keeping us safe from danger. Finally, the Neo-Cortexes – Thinking Brain, which grew over the top of the other older brains. This brought with it our modern day executive functions, such as morality and logic.
Understanding the differences between the three brains, how they work and develop together, explains how ‘Thoughts’ create ‘Feelings’ that affect ‘Actions’. This is how I work and parent.
The Primal brains (Reptilian & Emotional) are well-developed at birth. Survival instincts are fully functioning – crying when hungry, frightened or cold. Neural pathways are ‘firing and wiring’ memories, developing the emotional Limbic system.
However, the Neo-Cortexes, the Thinking brain, is only just developing. It continues to grow and mature until one reaches, on average, twenty-four years old.
So, all those abilities that one wants and expects children to demonstrate (good decisions, empathy, emotional control) are all dependent on a brain that hasn’t fully developed. A brain that is still a work in progress.
Whilst emotions can be big and strong, the ability to regulate them is weak and sometimes non-existent.
Keep hold of that thought, I know I do at two in the morning. Over the coming months it will bring you solace – that the emotions your child is exuding, are often perfectly normal to their age and brain development.
What One Can Expect…
A school day for young children can require a lot of self-regulation or compressed behaviour. This can lead to tired and emotional outbursts.
Keep this in mind at the end of the day and allow for some ‘letting off steam’. Run around a park, or sit quietly with some TV/screen time. Wait before addressing homework and how their day has been.
I do believe that monitoring screen time is important. However, as a nation we have been thrusting zoom lessons and activities in front of our kids non-stop for five months. Let’s not be hypocritical, a little here and there will be just fine.
Is your child…
However, I would not suggest standing at the front door with carrot sticks and hummus and expect a good response. Stock up the fridge and keep out of the way!
Older children will have the added stress of a fast-paced curriculum to keep up with. They will be playing catch-up after months of learning in pyjamas . There will be friendship tangles and group changes and other issues that come along with puberty, hormones and brain development.
As you hear the key in the latch your instinct may be to jump in and want to ask about their day. Your parental instincts will be screaming to make everything alright, to soothe their fears and make worry lists. Resist!
Talking to our teenager, our Utopia, right? Their worst nightmare! Keep it short, so that they know that you are interested. Some will happily chat and include you in their day – One of mine.
Others will prefer to simply be quietly alone – in a darkened room – or catch up with other friends on screens. When they want to talk, drop everything and listen! – My other!
It’s important to encourage your child to discuss their feelings about returning to school.
For small ones this may require more conversations about COVID, and the ongoing safety measures. There are some useful books about that help explain the virus, such as “Coronavirus” illustrated by “The Gruffalo”s Axel Scheffler.
If your child feel anxious or worried, help them understand that this is perfectly normal. That you and their teachers are there to support them.
Apart from the obvious anxieties due to new school rules, changed routines, bubbles, new teachers, social distancing and hygiene, bear in mind that your child may be returning to a pre-existing issue from before lockdown. For example,
Whilst some worries can seem trivial to an adult, to your child they could be enormous and all-consuming. Constantly ‘firing and wiring’ on those neural pathways, means that the worry is catastrophised in all proportions.
Their worried thoughts will create anxious feelings, which will create an emotional behaviour, which may be expressed in many forms; anger, tears, rudeness, sleepless nights, not eating….
Give them a non-judgmental and supportive place to share any anxiety. Remember that younger children may not have developed the ability to always use the words to express their feelings.
Words are in our Thinking Brain. Emotions are in our Primal Brain. Bring up conversations without putting pressure on them – for instance, when you’re playing with them or going for a walk.
Be honest! Older children often just don’t want to talk. They are finding it difficult to decipher their own feelings without have to explain them to their parents.
With teenagers, a car journey is a particularly good time to chat as this does not require eye contact. This can help them to open up naturally and identify what they are anxious about.
Although sometimes difficult, try not to constantly share your own anxieties about their current situation.
As parents, we are their rock and they are like sponges, absorbing everyone else’s emotions.
Anxiety begins in our Emotional Brain with the Amygdala.
The Amygdala is our watchdog for danger, who at any given sign, will alert our Reptile Brain and together will trigger our Fight & Flight Response. Invaluable for our ancestors being chased by Sabre-toothed tigers but not so much for us in our present day. Our Primal brains cannot tell the difference between real danger and the fear of danger. Hardly helpful at surprise parties, public speaking, or even putting a hand up in class ….
This part of the brain is then exasperated by what we call our Monkey Mind, with constant “What if”s. “What if there’s danger ahead?” “What if I make a mistake?” “What if no one sits with me at lunchtime?” And this not only causes us to catastrophise situations, but also to avoid them… just in case!
For several months now most children have been surrounded by familiarity. Moving away from that, especially younger children, may bring anxiety and fear of change.
Avoid Anxiety by Preparation, Preparation, Preparation…
If you aren’t a little bit prepared, your child’s monkey mind will begin to screech “What if… I don’t know where to go?” “What if… I don’t know who’s in my bubble?” “What… if I get it all wrong and get into trouble?”
Along with me, make sure that you aren’t the parent that is unprepared – that it isn’t your child running around the school grounds, their monkey minds screaming and their stress levels rising. That it isn’t your child with no idea where to be, at what time and with what in their bags…
Schools should have been in touch to explain the various new procedures such as the class ‘bubbles’ and hand washing routines. If you haven’t received this information or are unsure what the rules are, you should contact the school office in advance.
Or have a look at our “What Parents Need to Know on Going Back to School in Four Easy Steps…” blog.
And for more to read on “Understanding the development of Your Child’s Brain” download our e.Book here on our website.
If you have any thoughts or worries yourself, please don’t hesitate in getting in contact with us on: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Julia Johnston