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Children need parents to stay calm and set routine: UBC prof

Children are reassured by routines, Wendy Hall says, because they're not always wondering what's going to happen next. "Boundaries make them feel safer."

Wendy Hall’s neighbour was in a panic. His wife had been in an accident but he didn’t want to take his two young children with him to the hospital. Could Hall come over and take care of them while he was gone?

The neighbour might not have known this, but Hall was one of the best people to help in such a situation. A professor emerita at the University of British Columbia’s school of nursing, one of her fields of expertise is the value of routines in a child’s life.

First, she remained calm. That helped the young children remain calm even though they barely knew the woman who was now in control of their lives. Second, she told them what was about to happen: they were going to read a book together, brush their teeth and go to bed. Third, she followed through on everything she told them.

When the neighbour returned home, the children were asleep.

Keep Calm
"A lot can be accomplished by just trying to stay calm and, in a sense, trying to prepare for what you think would be the best outcome,” says UBC professor Wendy Hall. photo Unsplash, Benedikt Geyer

“Children are very susceptible to anxiety,” she says. “They pick it up very quickly. So one of the reasons I was successful is I didn’t project any anxiety. I acted like this was a normal night and everything was unfolding as it should. Even though they knew their dad was leaving and I’m not a relative, they got reassurance out of the fact that there was a routine and they knew what to expect.”

Children’s behaviour would often seem to indicate they rail against routine. They don’t want to go to bed when it’s bedtime. They don’t want to wear a jacket over their favourite shirt. No! No! No!

But saying “No!” can be their way of finding comfort in knowing there are boundaries. “There’s a lot of evidence out there that suggests children really benefit from structure because they find it very reassuring that there’s some regularity to what’s going on. They’re not always wondering what’s going to happen next and they can relax into the fact there’s this structure,” Hall says.

“At the same time, they’re trying to establish their independence and be their own people so they are going to resist, especially parental requests to do things at a particular time…. They always push back because they’re looking for boundaries. Boundaries make them feel safer. If that boundary doesn’t happen, they’re going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing, hoping that there’s going to be a boundary in there somewhere.”

Wendy Hall, UBC
It's not easy being a parent during the coronavirus pandemic. When it comes to dealing with the anxiety over the multitude of decisions they have to make, UBC professor Wendy Hall reminds parents that "Nobody loves your kids as much as you do." photo courtesy UBC

The problem with the coronavirus pandemic is that it throws routines out the window, both for adults and children. How can a world of uncertainty seem stable?

“It’s hard for parents because they’re worried about COVID, they’re worried about children going back to school, they’re worried about the virus coming back into their homes. I understand that,” Hall says. “But one of the things that’s really important to try to project to kids, even if you’re not feeling it, is calmness.

“There’s a reason why there was that expression in Britain during the Second World War — ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ A lot can be accomplished by just trying to stay calm and, in a sense, trying to prepare for what you think would be the best outcome.”

When it comes to anxiety about going to school, Hall says, try to be optimistic about what will happen. “You don’t need to let your children know that in three weeks’ time things could fall apart. That makes it very hard for children to engage in school and feel comfortable being back. As much as you can, give them the message that this is the way it’s going to be and if something happens and we have to regroup, then we’ll regroup.

“Schools have two primary purposes: keep the children save and help them with their learning. That’s really important to emphasize to the children.”

Right now, it can seem as if there’s no “right” decision. But that means decisions aren’t necessarily wrong either.

Take the decision over whether to send children to school. Children need and benefit from the routine and learning environment school provides. Some parents, however, say the risks outweigh the benefits and have opted to keep their children at home with them. Not everyone can do this, however. For parents who need to go out to work, and who do not earn enough to pay for childcare, there’s no other option than to send children to school in spite of their concerns.

The coronavirus has taken what used to be an unquestionable given — of course you’ll send your child to school — into a source of monkey-brain anxiety.

Take heart, Hall says. “My bottom line when I’m working with families is ‘Nobody loves your kids as much as you do.’ You need to give yourself some credit for that and not try and second-guess yourself all the time, or think you’re doing the wrong thing. No one loves them as much as you do and no one knows them as well as you do. You’re doing the best you can.”

Martha Perkins is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.




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