No one could have predicted the events of the past six months – it’s no one’s fault that we had to stay at home with our kids for months with almost no social interaction with friends and family members.
But, says psychologist Ilse de Beer, it’s becoming evident that the way we parent influences our children’s emotional and mental health. She says this observation is emerging from almost 6 months of social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Unaddressed anxiety, boredom, social isolation and lowered physical activity can lead to emotional and mental health troubles in children. We also know that parenting styles have a profound influence on children’s mental well-being and ultimately how they develop into young adults,” she explains.
How does my parenting style influence my child’s mental health?
“During the unprecedented lockdown, many children were anxious, isolated, inactive and bored. Being at home for such an extended period of time with an either overly-authoritarian or neglectful parent has been emotionally debilitating for some,” says Ilse.
She says now that life is slowly returning to normal, some kids may struggle and could possibly become withdrawn, anxious and even depressed.
There are 4 main parenting styles:
Ilse says often parents don’t fit into just one category, but we faced unique challenges during lockdown with homeschooling, entertaining and disciplining our children which may have contributed to an overemphasis on the manner in which we parent.
“On one extreme, authoritarian parents demanded strict obedience from their children while uninvolved parents left their kids to their own devices, with no structure or consequence whatsoever.”
Ilse says neither of the above is particularly healthy for a child who has been thrown into an unfamiliar world where every day routines such as going to school and social and extramural activities outside the home have been removed.
How can we help our kids cope?
“If your kids know and understand what to expect, as well as what’s expected of them, they’ll feel safe and secure. Predictability is very important for children’s mental health,” says Ilse.
Routine and structure are important
Ilse says while children need routine and boundaries, they should have some leeway to experiment and make independent choices within these structures. “Children need a safe and supporting home environment, but with enough space and opportunity to be age-appropriately independent and responsible. This will contribute to their development into well-balanced young people.”
“General rules in your home shouldn’t be negotiable and both parents should be on the same page when it comes to discipline. The concept of cause and effect is important for children to learn. They need to learn and understand that there will be consequences for their actions,” says Ilse.
Ilse explains that all of these factors play a role in developing a child’s ego strength (or grit). “Children (people) with good ego strength have healthy ways of satisfying their needs and coping with difficult situations,” she says.
Teach your child to adapt
“Adaptability and balance are two of the important ingredients for good ego strength. During the COVID-19 pandemic the whole world, including your family’s day-to-day life has been unpredictable and even chaotic,” says Ilse.
She adds that if you and your kids are able to adapt during these kinds of situations it can reduce daily stress and help promote healthy functioning. “Remember that your children will mirror your behaviour and the way in which you handle difficult situations.”
Children also worried during the pandemic
Ilse says children, like adults, experienced worry and anxiety during the pandemic. “They may have worried about their loved ones getting sick, missing out on school work, getting to grips with online learning and venturing out into the world again. They may have missed their grandparents, social outings, their friends and extramural activities. If their feelings of fear, anxiety and uncertainty haven’t been acknowledged or comforted by a supportive parent or adult, they’re more likely to be emotionally impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.”
Spend time with your kids
Ilse says it’s really important to spend quality time with your kids, especially during this time. “Children struggle when their parents are not emotionally available to them. This will have a negative influence on their sense of security, their self-confidence and their courage to venture into the world again.”
“Be accessible to your kids. Make time for small talk every day and take an interest in your children’s feelings and daily activities. Look out for signs of stress and anxiety because many children are unable to articulate how they are feeling,” she says.
More about the expert:
Ilse de Beer is a psychologist, specialising in health psychology. As a motivational speaker, she focuses on equipping people to function better emotionally in their day-to-day life. She holds a Magister Artium in Psychology from the Potchefstroom University for CHE as well as a PhD in Psychology from the University of Pretoria. Learn more about Ilse de Beer here.
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