How parents can look after the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children with disabilities during the coronavirus crisis

1st May 2020
Pod-Ability Dave King with Tamsin Cottis and Rosalind Grainger

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While it is reassuring that the COVID-19 virus rarely makes children physically ill, in this episode we’re exploring what impact the coronavirus crisis is having on the mental health children with disabilities. And we’re looking at how parents can best look after their children’s emotional wellbeing at home during the current lockdown, while responding to the crisis in a way that builds their emotional resilience.

To discuss these issues, Pod-Ability host Dave King is joined remotely over Skype by Tamsin Cottis, an acclaimed senior child psychotherapist and pioneer in the area of psychotherapy for children with learning disabilities, a subject she has written widely about. Also joining him is Rosalind Grainger, mother of Esja who has a learning disability. Roz is herself also a psychotherapist.

Our closed Facebook group offers a safe, private, supportive and understanding space to share issues raised by this episode with like-minded parents and families of children with special educational needs and disabilites.

We've listed below some of the key suggestions and takeaways that emerged during this episode's discussion.

Pod-Ability Dave King with Tamsin Cottis and Rosalind Grainger

Suggestions for parents from this episode’s discussion

Listening and empathising with your child

  • Tamsin: The most important thing is empathy, and being in the same feeling-state as your child. Try to cultivate a mind-set that says: “I won’t always try to put things right and I won’t always try and cheer my child up.” If a child is having a bad day or is cross or upset, it’s enormously helpful to reflect with them, with feeling in your voice, whatever it is you think they’re going through. So often children get told what to do and what to feel (and what not to feel) as though some feelings are acceptable and others aren’t.
  • Tamsin: You don’t have to make it all 'okay'. It’s more important, especially for children who have difficulty putting things into words, to know that you get how they’re feeling. Use everything in your voice to let your child know that do understand. Even if a child can’t understand every word, the feeling in the words will get through – and it’s the feeling that matters when it comes to being empathetic.
  • Tamsin: Make lots of time to listen to your child in an unrushed way, and try asking: “I wonder if what you really mean here is…” This gives the child a chance to try out different options and to wonder out loud.

Helping your child bear separation

  • Tamsin: Knowing that they’re being remembered, and held in mind, is key to bearing a separation for a child. Anything that the people your child is not seeing [during the lockdown] can do to communicate that they are still in his or her world, will be incredibly important. For example, you can ask your child’s teachers to make a video of themselves doing something familiar in their school environment.

Using play and storytelling to help your child express emotions and make sense of what's happened

  • Tamsin: Children can be encouraged to express their emotions through play. It also helps develop a stronger sense of self. You can try a game where the child uses objects to ‘make’ the world as they wish it was. This might throw up what they’re really missing right now, and get their feelings out.
  • Tamsin: Lots of children’s games that seem ordinary, like hide-and-seek, actually have very profound meaning – like being lost and then getting found, missing somebody and then being reunited. You can try playing these games and injecting lots of feeling in your voice as you express how delighted you are to see them again.
  • Tamsin: One of the challenges of the lockdown is the lack of structure – we’re all finding that days and time slip, so anything that can help a child learn that there is a structure to things and that things do have a beginning, a middle and an end, can really, really help. You could build a jigsaw puzzle together, with each piece of it representing something that happened as part of the lockdown – there may even be pieces missing.
  • Tamsin: It’s always going to be helpful if you can create a structure and narrative, and give events some kind of shape, within the cognitive capacities of the child. Use anything to express a chronology – photos, objects. “This was the day when you couldn’t go to school anymore, and then we were told we couldn’t play in the park anymore, and then we built a den upstairs. What do you remember? What happened next?” 
  • Roz: You can use photographs of your child’s favourite people and the child can talk about what they’ll say to them when they see them again.

Building your child’s emotional resilience and reflective capacity

  • Tamsin: Being able to feel all feelings and learn that they pass is an incredibly important developmental experience for a child, irrespective of disability or not.
  • Roz: This extended time period [of the coronavirus crisis] allows us to model that sometimes people fall out but that they also get over it. There’s a lot more time to discuss and react and to deal fully with the consequences of that reaction in a way you can’t do when you’re rushing.
  • Tamsin: Rupture followed by repair is incredibly important. It’s the fact that you minded enough to ‘put it right’ that’s really important. This is very different from things going wrong and parents not going back to it, and not apologising.
  • Roz: Sometimes children have a very strong feeling in their body, but they don’t necessarily have a very sophisticated vocabulary for it or the don’t perhaps know that what they’re feeling is called ‘anger’ or ‘sadness’. However, even if a child is very young or has a learning disability, they can be encouraged to develop a reflective capacity by voicing what’s happening in whatever way they can.

Discussing difficult subjects with your child

  • Tamsin: It’s not necessarily just telling children something difficult or frightening that has an impact. It’s the way that a child hears something that is key to how stressed they will become. And how the adults react at the time will really have an impact on the long-term effects on the child. Resilience comes from the adults not ‘freaking out’. Days when you are freaked out yourself, are not the time to talk to your child about what’s happening.
  • Roz: Sometimes when parents say they’re scared of their child’s reaction, what they’re really scared of is their own reaction. Children are often more resilient than their parents think they are. If their key attachment figures are with them most of the time, they’re going to be able to take a lot in their stride.

Building your child’s self esteem

  • Tamsin: The experience of being enjoyed – and being an enjoyable person to be with – is something that children with SEND sometimes don’t feel. They’re often seen to be the child who’s making things more difficult, or putting stress on the family, by bringing extra needs. So, when you can do something that is a genuine, mutual experience of joy between you, then really make the most of it.

Managing the impact of your own feelings on your child

  • Roz: It helps to understand yourself and your own emotional responses, as your children will pick these up.
  • Tamsin: Feelings pass from parents through to their parents – if you’re stressed, your child will be stressed. Keep looking after your own feelings to make yourself available for your child.
  • Roz: Parents of disabled children are accustomed to thinking that their child has a ‘separate issue’ that needs to be resolved, rather than that the child is responding to what’s going on with the parents – as any child does.

Managing your expectations of yourself as a parent

  • Tamsin: Be kind to yourself as a parent – attachment theorists suggest that parents only need to get it right half the time. Developmental theorist Donald Winnicott supported the idea of the 'good enough' parent. And we are doing well enough and being good enough.
  • Roz: One of the biggest myths about parents of disabled children is that we’re ‘wonderful’. Like all parents, we get things wrong, and it’s good for children to see that you get things wrong sometimes and make mistakes, but that you also recover from them and bounce back.
  • Tamsin: Perhaps you imagined all the creative things you might do with the time you have now, but actually managing this difficult circumstance, with all its uncertainties and anxieties, is work in itself.

Practicing self-care as a parent

  • Tamsin: Know what will help you and get what you need in order to get through, because that’s all anybody is doing right now.
  • Roz: If you’re frustrated because you can’t go to football club (or some other activity), break it down and think: “What do I need and how can I get that in a different way?” Similarly, you can break things down for your children.

Challenging your child to do new things

  • Roz: Sometimes you need to do the thing that feels harder, which is challenging your child with something new, rather than going for the tried-and-tested activities you know your child will tolerate.
  • Roz: It’s important to allow disabled children to take risks, which they’re often not allowed to do, because they get risk-assessed and wrapped up in cotton wool.

Managing conflicts, outbursts and frustration 

  • Tamsin: When frustration is being expressed sibling-to-sibling, you obviously have to intervene to ensure that no one child feels frightened or ‘got at’ by another child. You can say: “It’s never okay to hurt your brother, but I do get how angry you feel – we just have to find another way.”
  • Roz: Find ways for children to discharge feelings physically if they don’t have the words to express things, like jumping up and down or climbing things.

Creating structure and maintaining routine for your child

  • Tamsin: Routines can be more important at a time of stress and disruption, like this. See what new routine ‘anchors’ you can build and what existing ones you can hold onto.
  • Roz: Your child doesn’t need to have a diagnosis of autism for routine to be super important.

Using this lockdown time to develop insight into your child’s world

  • Tamsin: This time has helped me think about the children [with special educational needs] I work with, who are often quite a handful, quite challenging, quite tough on their teachers and parents. Very often their disruptive behaviour is because they’re struggling with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. It’s the feelings we’re all dealing with right now that are throwing them off track in the classroom. I really get it – how hard it is to take things in when your mind is caught up with a real fear about something you can’t quite understand. And that’s what the school experience is like for a lot of children with special educational needs.
  • Roz: Knowing what makes the world go round for your child is important, but also knowing yourself.

Other resources

What Variety can offer children at home during the coronavirus crisis

Variety provides sensory and outdoor play equipment for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), based on their need as well as a recommendation from a healthcare professional. Children don’t necessarily have to have a formal diagnosis for Variety to support them.

The Pod-Ability signature music track is by Sonic Boom Six. Many thanks for their kind generosity.​