Christmas in lockdown: how to support family mental health
By Giles Milton
Christmas should be a time of goodwill, joy and happiness. Except, for some, it is anything but.
The festive season can bring many added pressures and expectations. And if you’re feeling stressed or worried, you’re not alone.
YouGov research found that 2 in 5 adults have felt stressed at Christmas. A quarter of the population finds the period more difficult than the rest of the year.
In 2020, many of these emotions will be amplified.
At best, people may struggle with the impact of lockdown restrictions, which will prevent many from having the usual family celebrations. At worst, they may be coping with much tougher personal grief, loneliness or loss.
“Christmas can be an especially difficult time, and this year has been more challenging than most,” says Rosie Weatherley of Mind, the mental health charity.
“Unrealistic expectations about a perfect Christmas can leave us feeling stressed and isolated, even if we aren’t alone.
“On top of that, this year many of us are dealing with restrictions on seeing loved ones, money worries, or changes to education and employment.”
“It’s OK to feel worried or scared”
Covid-19 will affect all children and young people this Christmas.
Parent Zone research found that nearly a third of parents felt their child’s mental health and wellbeing got worse during lockdown.
It also found that a third of working parents had seen their jobs affected, while more than half were having to do more to support their children. For disadvantaged families, the negative impact has been particularly hard felt.
Meanwhile, half of university students feel their mental health and wellbeing has worsened.
Rather than being a welcome break for families, Christmas 2020 could be a perfect storm of pandemic and seasonal stresses.
Visits to family and friends will be either off the cards entirely or severely restricted – and that will leave a lot of time to fill. Boredom could be a real problem. On top of that, children may well be aware that further lockdowns are likely in early 2021; it has already been announced that some schools will return to online lessons in January. There’s a very real chance that some young people will feel negative about the future, or that normality will never return.
Parents can help by maintaining dialogue and communication.
“Two thirds of young people said their mental health got worse during lockdown, with loneliness and boredom being key factors,” says Weatherley.
“Listen to your kids about their feelings without judgement and remind them that it’s OK to feel worried or scared.
“Empower them to engage in activities they enjoy, by helping them create an activity or exercise plan, or by helping them connect with friends online.”
“Find a balance that works for you and your family”
It is somewhat fitting that Christmas 2020 celebrations are being hosted in Zoom calls and WhatsApp groups.
Seeing in the new year over instant messaging may not be ideal, but technology can have a positive impact on supporting a family’s mental health.
“Lots of us are relying on technology at the moment to connect us with the outside world,” says Weatherley.
“This can be great if it helps us speak to loved ones – or get support through an online peer support service like Mind’s Side by Side*.
“However, it’s worth remembering that too much time spent on social media can make it easy to compare ourselves to others. You can also find misleading information about coronavirus online, which can make us worry more than necessary. Watching a screen before bed can also affect our sleep, which we know is linked to mental health.
“The effect of technology on mental health is different for everyone – so find a balance that works for you and your family.”
[*For over-18s only]
Online resources to help over Christmas
One of the added benefits of technology – for those with access – is the number of resources and support services available to families through difficult periods.
A virtual friend for children aged 8-11, it can help parents and carers maintain healthy relationships and communication with their child.
The app, which can be accessed via any web browser, encourages children to talk about how they are feeling – providing subjects and emotions to choose from. It then serves up curated advice in easy-to-digest, bite-size form.
Parents can also follow the same pathways and get advice on the issues or topics that might be a concern, and both parties can link accounts so they can share information with each other.
For older children, The Mix can offer support and advice, as well as connecting with others in group chats and discussion boards.
Dealing with behaviour changes and crisis
While there are things families can do to stay positive, situations might arise where additional or emergency support is needed.
The Parent Zone Shout Crisis Messenger text service provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, you can text PARENTZONE to 85258.
Trained volunteers will support you over text with advice on urgent issues, including suicidal thoughts, abuse or assault, self-harm, bullying and relationship issues.
If you are worried about your child and a behavioural change, Mind also recommends a range of charity helplines that can help with different age ranges and problems.
However, whether access to tech is available or not, face-to-face support from a GP can often be the best option.
For more information on supporting your child with their feelings about coronavirus, managing your own feelings, or for advice on managing mental health this Christmas, visit mind.org.uk/coronavirus
5 Tips for helping your child over Christmas
Advice from Stevie Goulding of Young Minds, the children and young people’s mental health charity
1. Be understanding, and get outside
If you think this Christmas could be a difficult time for your child, or they’ve struggled throughout this year, be sure to check in with them in the lead up to see how they’re doing. Be understanding and plan ahead to ensure the holidays go well for both you and your child. This could mean spending time together, but also creating space to have some time for yourselves.
See how your child feels about spending time with extended family, if it’s allowed in your area – particularly with the pandemic continuing. If they’re worried, think about how you could make this time together less stressful.
This year in particular, there may be a sense of cabin fever, as being indoors can make tensions rise – so try to make sure that everyone gets out of the house regularly, even if it’s just for a short walk.
2. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve
It can be incredibly hard to know how to support your child through a bereavement. If they’re struggling, it can be helpful to acknowledge how much pain they’re in and let them know that it’s OK to feel however they feel, whether that’s sad, overwhelmed, angry or something else. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.
Offer opportunities for them to talk to you about how they’re feeling when they’re ready, and when they do, be prepared to listen, empathise and reassure them that you love them, that they’re not alone and can talk to you whenever they need to.
If you feel up to it, you may wish to have a special Christmas send-off, memorial or time of reflection in memory of your loved one.
3. Make the most of activities together
Board games can be a great way to spend time with friends or family while giving you something to focus on. You can play a lot of these games online to reduce physical contact, with options including Monopoly or Chess, or via apps such as Words With Friends 2.
You could also aim to do some activities together as a family, for instance getting everyone involved with cooking and baking or going out for walks together. Remember to take time for yourself if you need it.
4. Make use of tech
Video calls are a great way to stay connected with others if you’re not seeing family or friends over Christmas. Think about who you can keep in contact with and how you can use apps such as WhatsApp and Zoom to talk to friends and family face to face.
There are also lots of positive online communities for young people, like MeeTwo, where they can make new friends, get inspired and chat about things they care about. Your child could try searching for groups involved in causes, music or TV shows they are passionate about.
There are also lots of great free apps your child can use to guide them through breathing techniques and meditation that can help ease anxiety and clear their mind of anxious thoughts. We like to use Headspace.
5. And look after yourself too
It’s really important as a parent to look after yourself over the Christmas period, just as you would at any other time of the year. If you’re feeling down, tired or exhausted, it’s essential that you recognise this and give yourself a break.
Friends and family can often help – talk with someone you trust to see what they think and if they can help. While it’s easy to say take some time for yourself, in reality it may not feel possible.
But even a night in watching movies or eating your favourite dinner can help. Be sure to get some fresh air and exercise where possible, too.
Visit youngminds.org.uk/find-help/for-parents/ for more advice.