A solution-focused approach to staying optimistic in the face of challenges.
My preschooler son and I recently returned to Singapore to put down roots after spending several years abroad. Before our self isolation, the idea of being stuck at home for two weeks with my active son made me dread the return flight to Singapore. Now that we have successfully completed our self-isolation period, I am proof that two weeks at home with a young child is possible without endless screen-time or daily tantrums. This is how I used specific questions, positive-parenting techniques and a mindset rooted in the foundations of the solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) method, to manage the cabin fever and temporary loss of freedom associated with self-isolation. All this while caring for and entertaining my ‘jumping bean’ of a son. So if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here are some things you can consider:
For many of us, our lives have changed dramatically in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The changes in our children’s lives from school and playgrounds being shut, restrictions about how and when to be out and about, to missing visits with family members and playdates with friends, can be upsetting and difficult to comprehend. Parents can help their children navigate this crisis through simple, factual explanations about the virus and responding to the child’s questions about how they can feel supported.
Using Social Stories to Explain Big Concepts and Changes
One effective way to talk to your child about self-isolation is by using a social story. Social stories describe the events that occur around a particular subject and why. I found a simple and effective social story to help me explain the concept of self-isolation on the website TeachersPayTeachers. It was free and easy to download. There are many others available on the Internet. I introduced the story a week before our return flight. This gave me time to observe my son’s reactions, respond to his questions and offer follow-up support as needed. Additional cues signalling transition and change were the packing involved, the open suitcases which were left in plain sight for the week preceding our flight, and light family conversations about the impending move, where we would try and include my son in.
2. Building a goal-oriented daily routine
Routines are an important bedrock of a child’s development, especially in early childhood. They influence a child’s social-emotional and cognitive development, giving children a sense of security and stability in their environment. To ensure that a routine is effective, goal setting is crucial. Goal-setting is one of the foundations of a solution-focused approach. I started building our routine around the must-dos. These were non-negotiable activities which would repeat every day. This included the standard three meals, morning and bedtime routines, homeschooling activities, reading time, quiet time for free play and at least one hour of exercise (broken down into manageable 15-20min chunks) every day. I found it helpful to schedule the must-dos around the same time every day. This helped with prioritising good habits and made sure we achieved our daily goals.
Where possible, I gave my son limited options to choose from. This gave him some measure of control over his daily activities and a sense of ownership. When children feel like they have agency over their schedules, they are more inclined to cooperate.
My son’s daily schedule and a ‘count-down’ chart which served as a visual reminder of the days we had remaining in self-isolation.
3. Importance of Whitespace
Given the unique circumstances of self isolation where certain routines may have to be changed, it is important to allow for flexibility. Intentionally including whitespace within your routine can help you set more realistic expectations of your child and yourself during self-isolation. Take care to avoid overscheduling your child. It may be tempting to keep your child (or yourself) ‘busy and engaged’ at all times. However, studies show that children benefit from down time as a way to relax and develop their cognitive and emotional strength. With any routine, studies have shown that you can strike a healthy balance by incorporating certain activities into your day to day.
Ideal activities include those which enable us to achieve a sense of accomplishment, create opportunities for social connection with loved ones, and find something pleasurable that you enjoy. For example, completing our daily challenge to earn a reward or cooking with a new recipe helped us feel accomplished. We scheduled daily video calls with family and friends, and found enjoyment in taking turns to be the deejay for the day.
Age-appropriate challenges written on post-it notes that my son delighted in unveiling every morning. Completing each challenge gave him a sense of accomplishment which helped to boost his mood.
4. Self Care
Self-care has become a buzz-worthy term these days for doing something nice for yourself. However, self care to me is so much more than the occasional self-pampering. When I think of self-care, I am often reminded of the illustrations on an airplane’s safety card – the one where you put on your oxygen mask before helping another with theirs. Every day, I would endeavour to do a few things for myself. Studies have shown that self-care affects one’s emotional health and being mindful of your individual needs and how they vary from day to day can help you manage stress. For me, getting some quiet time in the morning helped me to mentally prepare myself for the long day ahead. This meant I would wake a little earlier to indulge in my first cup of coffee before the day began. Other simple acts of self care included a daily dose of exercise and getting enough sleep every night.
Responding to Feedback
1. Daily Check-ins
Every night, I would recap the day with my son. We would mentally reflect on what we had done that day, foods we ate, and the various highlights and struggles. I would always ask my son, “What did you like best about today?” and, “How could the day have been better?” Some nights, he would say he didn’t like anything about the day. Here, positive reframing such as “I’m sorry you felt disappointed by this activity. What would make it more fun?” Or, “Let’s think of how we can make tomorrow’s activity exciting! Remember that time when we did ____ and it was so much fun? Could we do something similar tomorrow?” Bottom line is, don’t take it personally if your child shares he didn’t enjoy an activity. Be flexible to change and involve your child in creating new ways to play.
I would also have a quick reflection of the day and almost rate the quality of that day’s activities or interactions. What did I most enjoy that day? What did I struggle with? What situations triggered negative reactions? Proactively, I would come up with a quick script using the S.I.F.T technique (see below) which I could offer to myself or my son should a similar situation arise again in the coming days.
2. Connecting with our Emotional Health
A method I have used with my diverse range of clients, including myself, is S.I.F.T. This approach to promoting self-awareness and connecting to what we are feeling was originally suggested by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, co-authors of The Whole-Brained Child. S.I.F.T. stands for Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts. I usually start off with one or two letters with a younger child and work my way up as I see fit.
S = Sensations: When this incident happened, what did it feel like in your body? Where did you feel it?
I = Images: When you felt these things, did any picture appear in your mind? Did you picture something bad happening?
F = Feelings: What did it feel like when your heart was racing or you were feeling hot and tense?
T = Thoughts: What were you thinking about when your heart was racing and you were feeling _____?
Though it was an experience I would not care to repeat anytime soon, the daily routine and techniques used made the whole episode more manageable. Setting realistic expectations of ourselves and having whitespace were important. Keeping our must-dos simple and manageable enabled me to consistently achieve my daily goals in the two weeks we were isolated. There were days when completing the must-dos were no problem, whereas other days could feel like a struggle to even stick to the daily routine.
As a counsellor, I constantly remind my clients that it is okay to ask for help. Some days, knowing that I had family and friends I could depend on to deliver groceries, toys, books, have a lovely virtual meal together or even virtually ‘baby-sit’ my son while I took a half an hour break in another room was enough to boost my morale and lift my spirits.
Celebrate your wins, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Doing your best means doing what you can with the limitations of the self isolation situation and accepting what is beyond your control. Also, if that meant extending screen time by another 10-15 minutes so that I could get the laundry done, the floor mopped or just simply stare out the window watching the birds and the sway of the trees in the wind, so be it. While the approach and methods I have shared are not the only way to manage the effects of self isolation, I was able to find balance for myself and my son during this trying period. To other parents and individuals going through their self-isolation, I wish you all the best in your experience. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy Association
Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy
Osofsky, J.D., Osofsky, H.J. (2020). Supporting young children isolated due to coronavirus (covid-19). LSU Health New Orleans.
Siegel, D. J., Bryson, T. P., & OverDrive Inc. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Random House.
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Yvette is a counsellor and advocate for the importance of student wellness, having most recently been a student counsellor to creative and talented young adults in higher education. Yvette is trained in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy and Solution-Focused Therapy, and continues to support students of diverse cultures and needs as she works towards normalising counselling for all.
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