You may know that in my clinic, Everlief, I offer therapeutic support to children and young people who are autistic or who have traits of autism (as well as some “neurotypical” young people). I also support parents. In this article, I reflect on five parenting lessons I have learned since lockdown, both from the families I work with, and my own family’s experiences. My reflections also incorporate feedback from other psychologists in my team, and my friends’ families.
1. Routine Keeps us Mentally Well
I am not a morning person. I really mean that. Before coronavirus and lockdown, getting up at 7am (ie the latest possible time to get up, make packed lunches, do breakfast, feed the cats and dog, and get first child to her bus stop in time) was a struggle.
Since home-schooling started, we have all been getting up at 8.20. My husband still has to run the clinic, and both children need to be at their desks for home-schooling by 9am. Things are much looser (except for eldest child who has structured lesson periods) but we still have a structure. I do a bit of work in the morning, take the dog for a walk in the late morning with my youngest child, and then we make lunch. In the afternoon I may have work calls, and the children are more likely to do baking, gymnastics in the garden or trampolining if they finish their work. The youngest (and Minecraft addict) gets some time on his Nintendo Switch. The evening follows a similar, loose structure.
My personal experiences appear to be similar to families I work with in the clinic, and friends’ experiences. What I have noticed is that families who are thriving as well as surviving, have some kind of routine to each day.
Why Does Routine Keep Us Mentally Well?
I welcome a loose, more relaxed structure to the day and I recognize that routine is crucial to our health. I think routine helps us for the following reasons:
- With so many of us (4 people, 3 cats, 1 large dog) under the same roof, we need some sort of system to prevent chaos. Chaos would lead to more arguments, misunderstandings and stress.
- Routine creates a kind of rhythm, which is soothing during difficult and uncertain times. Our brains generally like to know what is coming next; they can adapt, prepare, and in some cases look forward to the next activity. Routine is especially important for autistic people, whose brains generally need a bit longer to adapt to things. But it is important for all of us.
- Routine helps prevent us doing things that have been shown to be unhelpful for wellbeing. Sleeping too long, staying up too late, having too much screen time, or perhaps not doing enough exercise.
- Routine helps us create balance. Too much of anything is not a good idea, but most things in moderation are fine, as this article explains.
- It’s never too late to start a (loose/flexible) routine if you do not feel you have one. Even small changes can make a big difference to our everyday lives.
- It’s important to review your family and personal routine from time to time. Are there things that could be added in, or removed, to improve wellbeing? For example, one family I work with have a “family cheer” every evening. Before dinner they each say one thing they have appreciated about another person in the family, or a reason why they are proud of that person today.
2. More Flexible Schooling Can Lead to Incredible Progress with Life Skills
My eleven year-old son would prefer to be at school. There’s no doubt about it. However, flexible hours and being at home mean that his independence skills have flourished. Without any help at all he has cooked numerous things including: Bread from scratch, birthday cake, scones, churros (BOSH recipe here!), tofu katsu curry, tofu noodle stir-fry (multiple times to perfect his marinade and secret cooking technique!), and has made us lunch nearly every day. He has always had good organisational skills and been keen on understanding nutrition. This extra time at home, though, has taken his skills to a whole new level. Don’t get me wrong, he still spends too much time on his Switch, but I appreciate the enormous life skills development that has taken place. Mastering life skills is brilliant for building children’s self-esteem, especially if they have been struggling with academic learning at school
My son’s plant-based choc chip cookies
- Don’t try to do too much. Perhaps focus on one life skill to build on.
- Don’t “force” a child to work on an independence skill if he is not ready. It will take the fun out of it and may create anxiety. It’s best to choose something he has already shown enthusiasm for.
3. Teenagers Thrive on More Sleep
It is not easy for teenagers. Many, like my daughter, are missing their friends massively. Some are dealing with multiple losses of their “rites of passage” such as school trips, school proms, concerts and productions, and of course exams. My daughter would rather be at school but she has found a way to thrive. She chats on “House Party” with friends, works on tumbling challenges in the garden and records/mixes her own music. I believe she is finally getting enough sleep. This means that, despite the tough times, she can stay mostly balanced and happy.
As you may know, the circadian rhythms shift in the teenage years. This means that their natural bedtime will be much later than it once was. They still need a lot of sleep to help them grow, learn and recuperate, so getting up at around 7am for school can be exhausting for them. Chronic lack of sleep can affect their wellbeing and cognitive peformance. There have been some trials of later starts to the school day to accommodate this; see the video below. In the meantime, most teenagers (if they have a routine and a steady bedtime) are finally getting enough sleep. Most of us would not choose this lockdown scenario for our kids, but we can at least appreciate the benefits as well as the downsides.
4. More Flexible Schooling = Mentally Happier Children in Some Cases
I think I have heard the same phrase expressed by 20 sets of parents in the last few weeks. Possibly more. It is along the lines of:
“My son/daughter has flourished since home-schooling started. His/her anxiety has almost completely gone away.”
This is not universal, but it is very common. (Bear in mind that I work mostly with families of autistic children, many of whom find the academic, social and sensory challenges of school extremely difficult.)
It has been a revealing time for many parents and school pupils. Here are some of the reasons they are thriving (that I have heard about):
Their learning can be tailored to their needs and strengths.
Tasks can be broken down into smaller chunks. They can be made more practical (doing an experiment, making a model) if it suits the child’s learning style better – and if parents have the time to devote to adapting things. Lessons can be just the right length of time for the child. Some children need longer lessons because it takes their brains a while to get started, but then they can hyper-focus on the task at hand. Others need shorter lessons and more frequent breaks, because they find it difficult to focus for long periods and they fatigue easily.
They have more control over their environment.
Some children become very easily overloaded by their environment at school. Their nervous systems may be under strain even before they have started the day, perhaps if they have to wear a uniform that feels tight and scratchy, or because there is too much noise on the bus. Once they get to school, they may have to cope with visual overload from bright lights and colourful classroom displays. Classrooms may be noisy. Dinner halls may be echoey and may smell overpoweringly. Not to mention the demands of social interaction; trying to fit in, trying to “read” others and figure out how to respond.
At home, children can wear pyjamas and slippers to learn if they want to (no scratchy uniform!). They can often choose a quiet, comfortable place to learn and do not even need to sit at a desk if this doesn’t feel comfortable. The amount of social interaction is much more within their control too.
Everyone is focusing on wellbeing more than learning outcomes.
Finally! It has taken something this seismic, to create a shift in our culture and stop the incessant results-driven approach that has dominated school culture, particularly in secondary schools. It may not last, but psychologists and many parents are hoping that it does. There is currently much less focus on achieving a particular skill or grade. Everyone is accepting that children should simply try their best, and focus on their emotional wellbeing more. This is one of the best things about the crisis; one of those silver linings.
The fact is that schools, and particularly large schools, are too stressful for some children. Maybe, just maybe, many of these children could actually thrive in school if a new, more flexible culture emerged from this crisis. For example, increased ability for parents to “flexi-school” their children and attend school part-time.
5. Having Someone or Something To Care For Helps Children Cope
As already mentioned, we have a dog and three cats. The dog, in particular, demands a lot of our time. She is a rescue dog, and has some “issues” which we are working on. She is adorable and everyone’s best friend.
Caring for our dog has provided a fantastic focus for all of us, but especially the children. She helps provide a routine. Whether we feel like it or not, we have to get dressed, to take her out for a walk. That makes us get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Being with her much more often has enabled the children to tune in to her needs and her body language much more. They know when she is frightened and needs reassurance, and they know how to reassure her. Also, seeing her progress and thrive is immensely satisfying, especially when the children know they have played a large part in it. She has become the centre of our world and therefore she helps hold it together!
You may have noticed a similar thing in your family. But what if you don’t have a pet? It doesn’t matter. You can help your children focus their energy on someone, or something, other than a pet. For example, you might decide to help your child deepen his relationship with a grandparent, through writing special letters once a week or sending a small gift. Alternatively you could choose a house plant or a small patch of garden, which will be just for your child to tend to. Whatever you choose, notice how this increases your child’s ability to tune in to someone/something else’s needs. Watch the satisfaction and pride that comes with this deepened relationship!
I hope you have enjoyed these five parenting lessons I have learned from lockdown. I would love to hear your stories about what you have learned. Find out how to contact me below.
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