How to protect your child’s mental health as they return to school

One mother, a psychiatrist working in offender mental health, has two daughters, aged seven and four. The eldest is on the autism spectrum. Her husband runs his own business. As a unilateral keyworker family, they send their children to school two days a week, bowing to pressure they have felt to keep them at home when possible.

But school is where her elder daughter can feel in control. “Her well-being depends on consistency, routine, familiar care-givers and social skills support,” says her mother. “When at home, she needs familiarity and wants to be with me, but this is impossible at times. How do you explain to a seven-year-old why she cannot walk into the room in her pants while her mother is on a video-conference call?

“My younger child is physically demanding, seeking near-constant human contact while also becoming increasingly irritable, emotionally distressed and violent. She craves human interaction and does not understand why we cannot provide this on-demand. Meanwhile, school has become unrecognisable for her – none of her friends or usual teachers, little structure and no teaching.”

For every working-from-home parent who finds being ‘present’ for their children a mounting source of stress, I’m afraid that the child may well be experiencing stress, too. One father found a note pinned to his home-office door. “Daddy please stop werking and come and play,” it read.

When we are physically present but not available emotionally, it can feel like rejection to our children. One way to mitigate this, and I admit it’s a big ask, is to take 20 minutes out of each day to sit quietly with our children. I call it “special time”, telling my kids they are completely in charge, and I will do whatever they ask (even if it’s talking about killing other monsters!). If we do that, we can give them some of the control they currently crave.

Sitting with them, just offering general observations – “Wow, I can see the lion is sitting very close to the elephant” – and they’ll take comfort in sensing you are really there with them. We don’t have to be therapists to be therapeutic.

With my children, I’ve been using silly voices and telling them stories of how little people overcome big monsters, ideally making them laugh and empowering them. Humour is a great release for children, so anything silly and fun can help make a tough situation feel less scary for them and how we behave now, modelling calm, in-control behaviour, will help them deal with stress in years to come.

This can come in the simple things we do together, a picnic or curling up on the sofa, their stress systems syncing with our own, generating that atavistic feeling of being secure and held. There is a proven chemistry to hugs – and we could all do with more of them right now. So if you have children, remember the best thing you can do is see them, hear them and offer as many cuddles as you can. It might lower your own stress levels, too.

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