Melanie Allan, our School Counsellor, has been working throughout lockdown to support our ESMS families. She has written some advice for parents to help teenagers deal with stress and anxiety during lockdown and to manage the transition back to school.
Look after your own mental health
When your child is anxious or experiencing low mood, it can be difficult to know how to help them and it can be very stressful for the whole family to deal with. It is really important for parents to look after their own mental health. If you don’t deal with your own stresses and take time out for yourself, teenagers are more likely to adopt this behaviour themselves. Of course, this is easier said than done at the moment. The “coronacoaster” has all of us experiencing highs and lows on different days but it’s important to remember that giving yourself a bit of time to do the things you enjoy, that help you to relax, will help your conversations with your young people.
Try not to force them to chat
Teenagers have been modelling self-isolation for a long time. This is the time in their life when they start to crave more independence and when they take time out in their bedrooms to chat to their friends. Whilst you may feel this is an ideal time to have more “family time”, your teenager will not necessarily agree. If your teenager has negative thoughts and anxiety, asking them to tell you how they are feeling can make them clam up.
One way of getting them to open up is to try to avoid direct face-to-face chat. Normally I would advise talking while driving but as this is something we are doing less of at the moment, try side to side chatting while doing something together, such as baking or doing the dishes. Explain that you are finding lockdown difficult too as you are missing your friends and then use open questions that cannot be answered with 'yes', 'no' or 'whatever' to ask them how they are finding it.
Give them permission to talk without them witnessing your negative reactions
It’s a common complaint from parents that teenagers don’t tell them anything. But the reality is, teenagers are often protecting their parents from their feelings because they don’t want them to feel more stressed and anxious. It is natural to be fearful and react to the things that give you cause for concern but if you are able to listen to your teenager without giving any negative reaction you may find that they are more likely to open up.
It can often be easier for teenagers with anxiety and low mood to communicate in a non-verbal way. A technique that can work well for younger teenagers, S1-S3 age, is to create safe spaces or ‘pillow posts.’ This is when your child writes a message about how they are feeling and puts it in your pillow for you to respond to. You then write your own message in response and put it in their pillow. This allows parents to react to information without their child seeing the reaction and to take a breath before they write their response. Although, it does mean that you need to remember to check your pillow regularly!
Don’t focus on the behaviour
Teenagers often appear angry about things that we, as adults, don’t always understand. However, it is important for us to realise that anger is a secondary emotion. The three main things that can lead to anger are frustration, hurt or fear. Often when people are angry, they are actually very stressed. To help your child through this situation, try to focus on what they are feeling rather than what they appear to be saying. Most importantly try to forgive them and yourself for anything hurtful that might have been said in the heat of the moment.
As parents, we all shut down negative thoughts, telling our children that there are other people in worse situations to try and make them feel grateful and happy. However, it’s important to investigate what’s behind these negative feelings and give your young person some space to speak. Validating what they are feeling will make them feel heard and help you to really understand what they are going through. When I am talking to teenagers, I find phrases like “Tell me more about why you are feeling that?” or “That’s interesting can you give me an example of when?” can help them to open up.
Try to reassure them but don’t promise too much
Some teenagers with anxiety may be coping better during lockdown, away from the normal pressures of social interactions, appearance and public exams. The easing of lockdown for these children is likely to be a particular stress point as their old worries and anxieties come to the surface again. The idea of the unknown can also create anxiety. The key here is to gently reassure them without over-promising. We shouldn’t tell them that it will all be fine. However we can reassure them by saying that things will still be difficult, but they are tough enough to deal with it.
Praise good behaviour and ignore bad behaviour if possible
At the moment, people’s behaviour may be a little erratic. Therefore, it’s wise to be really over the top with praise for good behaviour and unless it’s dangerous, try and ignore bad behaviour, as difficult as it may be.
Spend time together individually and as a family
The positive things we say to each other can have a real and lasting impact, but families may not often take the time to praise each other. I recommend playing a fun game, similar to Consequences, where you take a piece of paper, fold it into a concertina, write their names at the top of the fold and pass it to the person on their left who then writes a positive statement about the person named at the top in the next fold. The only rule is it has to be truthful as well as positive. Get inventive with the task once it’s gone around the circle once, try “funniest memory,” or “best personality trait.” At the end, everyone reads their favourites out loud.
If you have more than one child, it’s also important to spend individual time with each of them. Other pressures can make it difficult but this enables each child to speak to you one-on-one and gives you the opportunity to show interest in what they are saying or what they are interested in.
Thank you, Melanie, for all of your tips. Melanie has continued to support ESMS families throughout lockdown. She is here for any pupil who would like her help. The best way to contact Melanie is for pupils to text their name to 07849 641 112 and she will arrange an appointment.