I have a range of toys, games and equipment in my therapy room for my child clients. They can choose these to ?play out? and role-play ideas, questions, and concepts in their mind. It is so important to let children play because these toys and games help to develop their cognitive, social and emotional well-being and extend their imagination. The way the children play and interact with the toys and equipment helps me to engage with them. It also allows me to interpret what issues the child may be grappling with, so I can verbalise my observations, which acknowledges them, builds connection and provides bonding time to build deeper trust.
How I ?play? with the children is easily replicable by parents at home. It is a way to build a connection with their children. But, parents incorrectly misunderstand that because ?playing? is fun, it must be frivolous and when children are sitting in the corner playing with their dolls, Lego or some other game instead of doing their homework, parents see it as ?wasting time.? I will come back to this later in the blog.
I think it is even more important to play with your children, especially now, because they have been cooped up for months during lockdown without seeing their friends and other family members to socialise with and being forced to be indoors. This isn?t the ?normal? they are used to and so this affects their stress levels.
Some parents may not see the connection between their child being forced to stay indoors and how it could have such a toll on children?s mental health, nor the reason to play with their child as a way of alleviating stress. But it is true - check out the research in my last blog post.
Recent research from the Childhood Trust (UK), ?Coronavirus: Children ?Developing Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD)? From Pandemic? warns that children and teens may develop serious mental health conditions because of the pandemic, including PTSD. This pandemic has been difficult for everyone but for some children it can be devastating, especially if they have experienced death or illness of a loved one, or if they are living in poor conditions of safety, or if they are hungry. These children are coping with far more than they should have to cope with and are likely to suffer from anxiety, depression or PTSD.
This week I received a call from a very stressed out Mum. She described how her 12 year old son had developed such rage and anger during lockdown that it was creating stress and tension between both parents, as well as affecting her personally. Her son is normally a happy child who enjoys the outdoors and absolutely loves his school and friends. This year he didn?t get the chance to see his grandparents and the family couldn?t take the usual summer holiday and this was devastating for them. Her son appeared more anxious, which was affecting his sleep and he reported feeling trapped.
His experiences correlate with a study done in Italy. On the surface, these might seem like behavioural issues, but when it comes to depression or PTSD, children tend to show their symptoms differently than adults. The thing is that this child and that parent are suffering from chronic stress.
Just take this back a bit - what do children need to feel safe? How do they feel stressed?
Children need routines and predictability. They need parents who are in good psychological shape themselves. With this pandemic, children?s routines have been disrupted. There is very little predictability - we still don?t know when it will end - and the parents are worn thin with having to cope with homeschooling, working from home, and doing all the usual household chores etc. and possibly dealing with other stressors like unemployment or financial problems. So, if parents are feeling stressed - then guess what - the children will definitely feel it too.
When you get stressed, your body will just start to ?get on with it? to cope. But there is an unhealthy way of coping and there is a healthy way of coping.
Children are not always able to verbalise how stressed they feel so as parents, we need to look out for unhealthy coping mechanisms in our children. With younger children, it might be having melt-downs, taking anger out on everyone else, withdrawing, tummy aches, nightmares - and older children might take to substances such as smoking, drinking or drugs or spending too much time with technology to manage their stress. As parents, we need to look out for these signs in ourselves too.
When you notice this in yourself, steer towards coping mechanisms and model these in your children. For example, get good social support from those around you, practice mindfulness, read, go outdoors, take time for self-care, eat well and be physically active.
When a parent has been on Zoom work calls all day, an example of good modelling could be for them to say, ?Wow, that was such a long day, who wants to go on a walk around the block with me?? or ?Who wants to play a game??
This is where play can be so therapeutic and is an example of a healthy coping mechanism, which is what children use to manage, regulate and understand in their own way what is happening around them.
While children need time to play alone and with other children, playing with their parents is also important. Here are some helpful tips to encourage play:
Play should be a priority anyway, but as a preventative mental health tool, it should be used to alleviate PTSD or to prevent other mental health issues coming to the surface.
We must act now to prevent mental health issues from developing in the future.
Spend 15 minutes of quality time with your child per day to combat mental health symptoms.
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