6 tips for looking after kids and grandkids during lockdown

As the world slowly adjusts to the strange new situation we find ourselves in, many of us are trying to keep busy by learning new skills, or prioritising our health and fitness. While these are helpful steps, you may also be concerned with the health and wellbeing of those around you, including any kids or grandkids. If you’re isolating with children or grandchildren, then you’re probably already aware of some of the challenges this can bring.

While it’s enormously comforting to be able to spend more time at home with your loved ones, it can also be a balancing act. You might find yourself trying to provide support while still giving space, dealing with the unnatural frustration of social isolation, and of course, factoring in the frayed tempers and pressures that are entirely natural in this situation. If you have young people living with you in lockdown, here are a few ideas to try and help look after everyone as best as possible.

1. Create positive new routines

Life has changed for all of us, but for children and teenagers, the loss of their normal routine will likely be one of the most unsettling aspects. Routines help people feel safe, and when people stop doing their normal activities it can have an acute effect on their mood. For this reason, it might be useful to think of ways you can help the youngsters in your house create new routines.

If you’re living with your grown-up children they’ll be able to create their own routines – however some young adults might find it tempting to spend all day in their pyjamas, eat at unusual times and let the days and nights merge into one; this is particularly true if someone is feeling low. Try to highlight the importance of getting washed and dressed and having a defined morning, afternoon and evening routine. Now more than ever we all need a predictable rhythm to the day, and by splitting the day into manageable chunks, life seems less overwhelming, and anxiety is reduced. Young adults can find tips for creating a lockdown routine, here.

If you’re helping to look after young children, be careful not to try to take over the role of teacher if it causes friction, the clinical director of Whole Child Therapy Nerys Hughes advises. Try not to worry that kids aren’t doing enough schoolwork, and instead look at the positives: the break from school gives children a unique chance to enjoy some individualised learning, which most schools aren’t in a position to offer. “I would say to the child: let’s write down all the different things that you could use this time to learn, do and experience. Then every morning, ask them to put a schedule together, made up of those things,” says Hughes.

According to the government guide to supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing during lockdown, these are the most important points to consider when creating a routine:

  • Make a plan that includes time for learning, playing and relaxing;
  • Try to maintain a balance for being online, and think about new ideas for activities to do at home (the Children’s Commissioner guide has some good ones);
  • Kids and young people ideally should be active for an hour a day, which can be tricky during lockdown. Check out NHS Change4Life for ideas for indoor games and activities;
  • Sleep is integral to mental and physical health, so try to stick to existing bedtime routines.

Establishing a routine isn’t just helpful for maintaining a sense of normality and looking after both physical and mental health; it can also be incredibly useful when it comes to giving each other space. Which brings us to the next point…

2. Give each other space & privacy

No matter how well a family gets on, being forced together for long periods of time is difficult – particularly if you’re living in a small flat or house and don’t have an outside space. Try not to take it personally if the children or young people living with you are snappy or argumentative. As family therapist Chris Mill says, remember that “captivity is not natural for us. So if we are reactive or stroppy, it’s the tensions created by being forced together. We’re designed to nest together and come together, but also to have freedom of movement and interaction with others.”

But of course, it can be hard for kids and young people to enjoy any sense of freedom in lockdown, especially when you’re living in cramped conditions. This is where the importance of having a routine comes in. It’s vital that young people (like us all) have some private time to themselves, so if you don’t have enough space for everyone to be in their own room, try to create a schedule where you agree who will be in a certain room at a given time. It might be helpful to begin each day by asking what people want to achieve. This way you can allow some flexibility within your routines, and take into account the day-to-day moods and rhythms of the kids and young people in your house (as well as your own, of course!).

Boundaries are enormously important in our current conditions, so if you don’t have any outdoor space, and have limited indoor space, try to create ‘zones’ in the home. A corner of the living room can become the ‘chill out zone’, the hallway can become the ‘exercise zone’, the kitchen table can become the ‘games zone’. If it’s not possible for there to always be a quiet space in the house for personal time, try to suggest ways of mentally keeping distance and getting some space. Activities like reading, drawing, getting out for exercise and chatting to friends can be helpful here.

One purchase that can have a big return during this time is investing in some wireless noise-cancelling headphones. This way, people can retreat into their own private headspace even when they’re in a room with other people – and for teenagers and young adults, this can be especially valuable. With so many podcasts, TED talks, music channels and playlists to choose from, there’ll certainly be no shortage of things to listen to. From wellbeing podcasts to funny and uplifting chat series, many of these can also help boost mood and spirits.

Also, while respecting young people’s personal space is important, lockdown is also a good time for creating new family rituals. This could be as simple as sitting down for an evening meal together as a family every day, or going for a daily walk with your grandchildren in the afternoon.

3. Help children & young people feel productive and useful

According to child therapist Nerys Hughes, the three key things kids and young people will miss most in lockdown are their normal routines, feeling connected to people, and the chances to be successful and accomplish things. “We need roles, identity and productivity, even from the age of three,” she says – and luckily there are lots of ways you can help kids and young people feel productive at home.

Some of these accomplishments can be education-based – e.g. simply helping a child with their schoolwork or reading with them can lead to a powerful feeling of accomplishment. For grown-up kids, giving them the space to work from home, study on university assignments, or simply read a book or news article can make a big difference. Learning new skills can also be very rewarding for teens and adult children, whether that’s creative skills like baking or drawing, or digital skills like design or photo editing.

If you’re living with young grandchildren, there are literally hundreds of things that can lead to a feeling of accomplishment. “It can be learning to make mum a cup of tea, putting pasta in a bowl or drawing a picture for someone so they feel connected to the people they are missing,” says Nerys Hughes. “Even if that gift never gets given, because you are self-isolating, the child has felt that moment of connection.” Come up with fun, educational activities you can do with your grandkids – perhaps ‘gardening with granny’, or ‘DIY with grandad’. Things you can do together, like cooking or building something together, have the added benefit of strengthening relationships.

4. Ensure open and effective communication

There’s no denying the toll that social isolation and lockdown is having on our collective mental health. People of all ages have been cast adrift from friends, and abandoning goals and daily routines can be extremely tough. According to clinical psychologist Dr Carly Johnco, when routines are disturbed and families confined together, cabin fever is a real possibility, and can manifest itself as anxiety, frustration, depression or a general low mood. So what can you do to avoid this?

For older teenagers or grown-up children, it’s important to be on the same page. Psychology professor and parenting expert Lea Waters says lockdown can affect three key components of mental health: our sense of autonomy, relatedness (feeling connected to others) and competency (feeling like we’ve achieved something). “I’d suggest the family sit down and devise a family contract,” Waters says. “Have a discussion: what are the biggest challenges? What are the strengths that we each have as an individual family member that can help out?”. Once you know what people are most concerned about, you can figure out the best ways to help each other.

If you have young children in the house, it can be hard to know how much to share about what’s going on. The advice from the NHS is to limit news and conversations with family that relate to the pandemic. An update twice a day is enough to keep you in-the-know, without feeling overwhelmed. Remember that even if children are young enough not to understand what’s happening, they can still pick up on a tense or fearful atmosphere, or the fact that other people appear worried. Children often take their emotional cues from adults, so how you react is very important.

To support kids and young teens, it’s crucial to listen to any worries or doubts they may have – then acknowledge them and empathise as best you can. Kids often feel less anxious when they know they can express themselves in a supportive and understanding environment. Speak honestly about what’s going on – although in an age-appropriate way. It’s also worth keeping in mind teenagers’ adolescent brains can make them feel invincible, so they might have no qualms about risking their health to see friends. Because teens can act impulsively, always ensure they understand why lockdown rules need to be followed and the impact their actions could inadvertently have on others.

Above all, whether you’re living with grown-up kids or young children, it can be beneficial to speak openly about what you’re feeling and experiencing. This can help reduce any potential shame or stigma if someone is struggling with the reality of lockdown. Knowing it’s a difficult time for everyone, including adults, can be a source of great comfort for young people.

5. Stay active & get outside

For many of us, lockdown doesn’t mean house arrest. Exercise is hugely beneficial for improving mental health as well as physical, so if kids are able to get outside and exercise safely, this should be encouraged. “Frustration and boredom can come when kids are not getting the opportunities to be physically active,” says clinical psychologist Dr Carly Johnco in The Guardian.

Encourage teens and grown-up kids to go out for a walk, run or bike ride; this is a great way to enjoy some headspace and private time as well as burn off energy – and perhaps some frustration. Fresh air and a change of scene can do wonders for improving mood, too. If running doesn’t appeal, simply going for a walk can have powerful benefits. If older teens or young adults have been feeling anxious or on edge, suggest they go for a walk while listening to a meditation; the Headspace app has an excellent walking meditation that encourages listeners to connect with nature and their surroundings, and appreciate the simple pleasure of walking.

If you’re helping look after young children, going for a daily walk can easily be turned into a fun adventure, and The Telegraph has some great ideas here: take them out for a bug safari, or go for a walk in the local park or woodlands and become a Nature Detective. Activities like these not only keep kids active, but also entertained, and help take young minds off more troubling news.

Even inside there’s lots of ways to stay active. Young kids will love PE With Joe, the hugely popular daily exercise session from personal trainer Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach. Wicks’ home workouts for seniors videos have also proved popular during lockdown, and give grandparents a chance to exercise alongside their grandkids – if they wish to! If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, setting up an obstacle course for your grandchildren will probably keep you just as occupied as the kids….

6. Dealing with feelings of isolation & sadness

An incredibly important component of good mental health is feeling connected to others. For young people, the loss of their normal lives and seeing their friends is felt very powerfully. It isn’t just the social contact that’s missed – it’s also the peer support. Young people are generally more likely to talk about problems and their feelings with their friends, and being in lockdown might feel as though their support network has been ripped away – no matter how supportive their family is.

It’s vital to empathise with this feeling. Never try to minimise how a child, teen or young person is feeling, as that will only exacerbate feelings of isolation, or the sense that no-one understands them. “Many teens are experiencing tremendous loss, and grief is an appropriate response to loss,” family therapist Noelle Wittliff says. “Depending on the age and school year of the teen, these losses can include proms, graduation ceremonies, end-of-year sports events, dances or parties.” Many schools closed so abruptly that young people never even got the chance to say goodbye to their classmates.

If a child, teen or young adult expresses sadness at missing out on certain events or trips, or feels uncertain if they’ll ever be able to have an experience again, always try to validate their feelings. Rather than saying things like “There will be other parties,” or “You’ll be able to go another time soon,” say something like: “I understand how hard this is for you. I know how much you were looking forward to this.” Dismissing or downplaying their feelings can lead young people to feel ashamed, or like they’re not coping as well as they should be.

Feelings of sadness and isolation can naturally lead to an increase in anxiety or low mood, and Wittliff suggests encouraging young people to practice mindfulness meditation techniques to help them cope. “There are so many things that are out of our control,” Wittliff said. “When our mind focuses on those things, it is helpful to bring it back to how we can control our lives, how we stay safe, how we can stay connected in that way.”

Teenagers might want to check out the Mindfulness for Teens site, while Headspace has a specific Meditation for Kids section. Headspace has also launched a new ‘Weathering the Storm’ series that’s specifically designed to provide support throughout this current crisis; it includes meditations, sleep, and movement exercises to help listeners handle their emotions and find a space for some quiet kindness. We also have a wide range of mindfulness courses on the learning section of our site here. Mindfulness is something that can hugely benefit all of us, from our parents, to our children and grandchildren – if you are interested in finding out more you can read our guide An introduction to mindfulness.

When it comes to feeling connected to others, technology is definitely our friend. Encourage young people to talk to their friends regularly, whether it’s on the phone or via video chat. For younger children, video chat apps like Skype or Zoom can seem a bit uninspiring and business-like, so why not suggest other ways they can connect with friends? Google Duo on Android, WhatsApp and apps like Caribu and Houseparty can feel more personal, and have fun, interactive features like 3D Masks and shared drawing boards.

A final thought...

With no definitive end to this situation, our emotional resources are taking a beating, and it’s easy to feel anxious and stressed. One of the best ways you can provide support to the young people you’re living with is to take care of your own mental health and wellbeing. It’s incredibly important right now to be kind to yourself, so put time aside for self-care and read up on ways you can look after yourself.

There’s clearly no “right way” to navigate a global pandemic like this, and how we handle it – both individually and as families – will look different for everyone.

Are you currently in lockdown with your children or grandchildren? We’d love to know your experiences of being in isolation with young people. Please send your stories to [email protected] or leave a comment below.

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