Coping with coronavirus - how an Antrim group has helped parents and children through lockdown

A SOCIAL enterprise based at The Junction has provided more than 100 support sessions to families struggling through lockdown.

Kerry McWilliams founded the Lightwork NI to help ‘build resilience’ in the local community, with clients ranging from five to 105 years old.

She had already worked in counselling and family support and for organisations like Women’s Aid and the Simon Community - and saw how simple, science-based coping mechanisms could help people through difficult times.

With Northern Ireland already facing a mental health crisis, now the techniques used by Kerry and her team are needed more than ever, including practical tools we can all use at home to calm ourselves and think clearly.

From a base at The Junction, Lightwork NI holds workshops and other outreach work all over Northern Ireland, for young people, parents, and anyone else who needs assistance, either for groups or one to one

And the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the importance of such work into sharp relief.

The Antrim Guardian spoke to Kerry on the eve of lockdown back in March, when there were already worries about the impact of the virus on the way we all lived.

We decided to catch up with her again, now that restrictions are easing and children are making their way back to school.

Kerry has admitted that lockdown ‘has been difficult for everyone’.

“We have lived through a global pandemic, a moment in history unprecedented in modern society.” she said.

“The families I have worked with have all moved through paralysing fear, powerlessness and panic.

“They have taken a fresh look at what makes them happy, what is worth fighting for - we all realised it’s not toilet roll! - and some realised how far they have sleepwalked into a life they wouldn’t have consciously chosen, and don’t really want to go back to.

“I believe the legacy and consequences of lockdown will be significant for everyone both in the immediate future and for many years to come.

“Not just in ways we might expect, but due to a radical revaluation and changing priorities for families as they create new ways of balancing work and home, happiness and productivity, security and adventure in their ‘new normal’.

In response to Covid, Lightwork ran a family support programme funded by Victoria Homes Trust and Enkalon foundation.

They provided more than 100 sessions of direct support to parents and children in July and August 2020.

Around 80% of those sessions were focused on children’s behaviour.

Kerry said that anxiety often presents as hyperactivity and defiant behaviours, aggression and meltdowns as well as sadness, loneliness and difficulties with sleeping and eating.

“However, we know that when children are well supported to understand and regulate their emotions through difficult life experiences, they can emerge stronger.” she said.

“As children return to school, we have an opportunity to respond to children’s legitimate worries by teaching them effective techniques and strategies to restore calm, to manage their fear and build courage.

“When well supported, children are resilient

“A legitimate concern might be that s child’s emotional needs may not be prioritised, as schools struggle with the very real and difficult task of implementing social distancing to keep them safe.

“The resources and financial means to provide teaching in emotional resilience tools and techniques might not be available to schools who are already stretched to fund the adjustments.”

She said that children who have been particularly badly affected are those with additional educational needs, conditions such as autism or those who have parents who are shielding.

“Young children learn to regulate their emotions by interacting with a calm adult first, and the children who found lockdown most challenging were those whose parents and caregivers weren’t able to provide that support for them.” she said.

“This might have been because they were exhausted key workers who had to find childcare or isolate from their children, managing caregivers’ own fears and their own physical and mental health might have been struggle, and everything from finances to relationships became very strained, creating additional pressure for parents.

“Many children struggled due to a lack of physical exercise and excessive screen time.

“Many families experienced an initial period of difficulty as they existing problems for the first time - problems which had previously been hidden by busy separate lives: drug and alcohol use by teens, challenging behaviours and anxiety and insecurities.”

However Kerry said that many parents have reconnected with children during lockdown and built stronger skills.

“They have done less herding and taxi driving and more listening and playing and the richer and more connected relationships they have created has been an unexpected bonus.” she said.

Kerry added that home education was often a bigger issue and flashpoint than social isolation, with schooling a cause of significant conflict and distress.

“Children stayed in contact with friends via online gaming, video conferencing and other apps - this generation is well equipped to maintain friendships with technology.” she said.

“Parents told us they found it very difficult to get children to do the work.

“Children told us they were afraid of being found out. One nine year old boy told me: ‘I don’t want to do school work with my parents because they think I’m really smart and they’re going to find out I’m not – I get good marks because I cheat and copy and when they see I can’t do the work they’re going to know’.

“This was a common fear for children – a sense of discomfort as school invaded their homes and family relationships. Most children like to keep school and home separate

“Parents felt exposed and vulnerable as they were unable to understand or support their children’s learning.

“Many couldn’t access ICT equipment or provide internet access for multiple children and this led to frustration.”

Kerry said that there would be difficulties for children returning to school and has urged families to be vigilant for certain types of behaviour.

“Some children found it difficult to adjust to the new routines which replaced school when lockdown began and many will find it difficult to adjust again as they return to a largely unknown version of school life.

“For some, returning to school will be a relief and a welcome escape from a difficult home life, for others we are asking them to accept a terrifying prospect which potentially places vulnerable members of their family in danger.

“I am seeing an increase in children presenting with germ phobias and obsessive hand washing and sanitising, fears of family getting ill or dying and social anxiety in children who spent a lot of time online during lockdown.

“Where school has been a difficult environment for children before lockdown, we can expect the tension and worry to be significantly increased.”

“Children really need detail – how will I walk in? where will I hang my coat? What will lunchtime be like?

“It is very difficult for parents to communicate a sense of safety and confidence to children because they aren’t feeling it themselves.

“Many parents have legitimate concerns about children putting vulnerable family members at risk by transmitting the virus, and most of the advice and reassurance feels counterintuitive given the conflict with previous safety precautions we have relied on to stay safe.”

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