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My daughter is nearly 11 and is not coping well with the lockdown

Ask the Expert: She can be really pessimistic, saying it won’t be the same ever again

Question: My daughter is nearly 11 and is not coping very well with the lockdown. Initially, she was okay but became frustrated after the Easter break. She misses school and friends and is worried about what we will be doing in the summer (she was very upset we had to cancel her Easter camp and our summer holiday).

When we try to be optimistic about the restrictions lifting, she can become really pessimistic, saying it won’t be the same ever again. Her negativity frightens me a little. She talks a lot to us about her feelings and we listen and try comfort her, but we seem to go around in circles. She spends a lot of her day worrying. We try to structure her day with activities and fun things. We have family games a few evenings a week which she likes.

Any tips for things we can do to help her with her anxieties, eg mindfulness or worry box or something else?

Answer: The extended lockdown is taking its toll on children's mental health. With no sight of schools going back this year and the prospect of a long, empty summer ahead, it is understandable that things might appear bleak to many children (and their parents). The loss of the normal holidays and trips, activity camps, and social events that would usually fill a child's life during the summer are likely to have a big impact on children's mental health, especially those who depend on these social outlets for their well-being.


Helping your daughter contain her worries

It is good that your daughter can talk about her worries and feelings with you and that you are listening and supporting her. Normalising what she is feeling as an understandable reaction to challenging times will be helpful to her putting things into context. However, it is also important you try to limit “worry talk” as some children can ruminate obsessively about their worries all day long, which is harmful. When you find yourself “going around in circles” in a conversation, it can be helpful to gently interrupt this – “let’s take a break now and do something else/talk about other things now”.

When supporting families with an over-worrying child, I usually suggest the parents set aside a specific “problem solving” time (usually about 30 minutes once or twice a day) when they will listen carefully and talk through all their children’s worries. However, at other times they will not engage in worry talk and will only talk about positive things or engage in other fun activities. This discipline of set problem solving times helps children contain their worries and can make them more manageable.

You have already mentioned some other good tactics for containing worries such as using a worry box or mindfulness. There are plenty of others such as using worry dolls to talk out worries or using visualisation to imagine a safe place where worries disappear. With all these techniques it is a case of finding the one that engages your daughter’s imagination and works for her. The ritual of a worry box can be used to move on from problem solving time – “now let’s put your worries in this box one by one where they will be safe overnight and you don’t have to think again about them until morning”.

Planning the future

While it is important to listen to your daughter’s worries, it is also important to gently challenge her if she is over-pessimistic. This is best done via questions. When she says “nothing will be the same”, you can ask her “Is that really true or how can you be so sure?” or “Isn’t it a good idea for us to plan positive things in the future?” A good idea might be to review the five phases of the Government plans for opening up Ireland (there are some nice pictorial graphics that your daughter should be able to understand) and then to set some goals that are important for your daughter for each stage.

For example, in phase one you can plan to help her meet different friends in the park for a walk or even an outdoor game (while adhering to the physical distancing rules). Then you can plan to do some sports or visit family or eat out as each of these things become available. You may be able to schedule in a camping trip or other regional holiday later in the summer. Make sure to identify alternatives and “plan Bs” in case some don’t come to fruition. Setting goals, creating plans and scheduling them as possibilities on a calendar will help her feel hopeful.

Planning a daily routine

As well as making some plans for the future, make sure you keep a good daily routine for the family. This will be important in preserving her mental health and well-being. Have a routine that includes regular meals, a daily learning time, some time outdoors, reading and relaxing, as well as family fun time. I like the board games you are doing each evening that she seems to be enjoying. Encourage her to be involved in planning what goes in the routine.

For example, maybe you alternate who chooses that game you play or where you go for a walk or what you have for dinner. Encourage your daughter to set a couple of small goals each day and later review what she liked, learned or achieved. This will all boost her well-being.

– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charityand an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See for details.