Advice to support mokopuna during COVID-19 related disruptions
Reactions to change and supporting mokopuna
During a period of disruption, our feelings of safety can be undermined. Helping mokopuna feel safe takes time, patience and reassurance from the important adults in their lives. When mokopuna are scared, they also want to be with people who help them feel safe and they might worry when they are not together.
Mokopuna can become confused and fearful when changes happen and when they don’t understand the changes. Take time to listen. Check in about their feelings and acknowledge and normalise these. Reassure mokopuna that we can do things together that help us feel better. Reassure mokopuna that you are looking forward to doing more things as it is safe to play outside, see our friends and go back and see our kāiako.
How might mokopuna may react, and what you can do
Mokopuna may show the impacts of stress in different ways. When mokopuna show signs of stress it is common for them to revert to behaviours they have previously grown out of eg, sucking their thumb, wetting themselves, or becoming clingy.
How mokopuna react will depend on what’s changing in their daily lives, what they are hearing, how you are reacting, and the support and comfort you and your whānau are able to provide.
Below are some common concerns or issues experienced by mokopuna and describes how whānau or kāiako can respond.
When mokopuna are worried they want to be with people who help them feel safe and they worry when you are not together. If there are things they don’t understand bedtime is a time for remembering because we are not busy doing other things. People often dream about things they fear and can be scared of going to sleep.
Ideas to help with sleep routines
If there have been lots of changes and this is acceptable in your whānau, and is safe, let your mokopuna sleep close to you. This is OK. Let them know this is just for now. Have a bedtime routine such as a story, a prayer or cuddle time. Tell them the routine every day, so they know what to expect. Hold them and tell them that you are there and you are OK. Understand that your mokopuna is not being difficult on purpose. This might take time, but when they feel safer and they will sleep better.
Mokopuna who cannot yet speak or say how they feel might show their fear by clinging or crying. Goodbyes might remind your mokopuna of any separation where they got worried about something.
Mokopuna react to separations through physical changes (stomach sinks, heart beats faster). Something inside says, “Oh no, I can’t lose her/him”. Your mokopuna are not trying to manipulate or control you. They are worried or scared. They might also get scared when other people (not just you) leave. Goodbyes make them scared.
Ideas to help with brief separations
- For brief separations (eg going to the supermarket) help your mokopuna by naming their feelings and linking them to what they are worried about. Let your mokopuna know you love them and that this goodbye is different –you’ll be back soon. ”You’re so worried, you don’t want me to go because last time you weren’t sure where I was. This is different and I’ll be right back.”
- For longer separations tell them where you’re going, and why and when you’ll come back. When you come back, tell them you missed them, thought about them and did come back. You will need to say this over and over.
Stress affects your mokopuna in different ways, including their appetite. Eating healthy is important but focusing too much on eating can cause stress and tension in your relationship.
Ideas to help with mealtimes
Relax. Usually, as your mokopuna’s level of stress goes down, their eating habits will return to normal. Don’t force your mokopuna to eat. Eat together and make mealtimes fun and relaxing. Keep healthy snacks around. Mokopuna often eat on the go. If you are worried, or if your mokopuna loses a significant amount of weight, consult a doctor.
Often when mokopuna are stressed or scared, they temporarily lose abilities or skills they recently learned. This is the way they tell us that they’re not okay and need our help. Losing an ability after mokopuna have gained it (like starting to wet the bed again) can make them feel ashamed or embarrassed. Whānau should be understanding and supportive. Your mokopuna is not doing this on purpose.
Ideas to help with stages of development
Avoid criticism – it makes them worried that they’ll never learn. Don’t force your mokopuna – it creates a power struggle. Instead of focusing on the ability (like not using the potty), help your mokopuna feel understood, accepted, loved and supported. As your mokopuna feels safer, they will recover the ability that was lost.
Mokopuna believe their whānau are all-powerful and can protect them from anything. This belief helps them feel safe. Because of what may be happening around them this belief may be damaged and without it the world is a scarier place. Take care to model being calm.
Ideas to help with fear and worries
When your mokopuna is scared, talk to them about how you’ll keep them safe. Answer their questions, about what’s happening and what we are doing to be safe. If they talk about bugs or monsters, join them in chasing them out. “Go away bug, don’t bother my baby. I’m going to tell the bug boo and it will get scared and go away. Boo, boo.” Your mokopuna is too young to understand and recognise how you are protecting them, but remind yourself of the good things you are doing.
Fear can create nervous energy that stays in our bodies. Adults sometimes pace when worried. Mokopuna run, jump and fidget. When our minds are stuck on scary things, it’s hard to pay attention to other things. Some mokopuna are naturally active.
Ideas to help with lots of energy
Help your mokopuna to recognise their feelings (fear, worry) and reassure your mokopuna that your whānau has a plan that’s keeping everyone safe and getting through after the lockdown. Help your mokopuna get rid of nervous energy – stretching, running, sports, breathing deep and slow. Sit with them and do an activity you both enjoy – throwing a ball, reading books, playing, drawing. Even if they won’t stop running around, this helps. If your mokopuna is naturally active, focus on the positive. Think of all the energy they have to get things done and find activities that suit their needs.
Mokopuna often talk through play. Unkind or hurtful play can be their way of telling us how crazy things are and how they feel inside. When your mokopuna talks about what is happening, strong feelings might come up both for you and your mokopuna (fear, sadness, anger).
Ideas for supporting calm and supportive play
Listen to your mokopuna when they talk about what they saw. As your mokopuna plays, notice the feelings they have and help them by naming feelings and being there to support them (hold and soothe them). If your mokopuna gets overly upset, spaces out or plays out an upsetting scene, help them calm down, feel safe and consider getting professional help.
Between the ages of 18 months to three years, mokopuna often seem clingy or controlling. It can be annoying, but it is a normal part of growing up and helps them learn that they are important and can make things happen. When mokopuna feel unsafe, they might become more clingy and controlling than usual. This is one way of dealing with fears. They’re saying, “Things are so crazy I need control over something.”
Ideas to encourage choice
Remember your mokopuna is not clingy, controlling or bad. This is normal but might be worse right now because they feel unsafe with all the changes. Let your mokopuna have control over small things. Give mokopuna choices over what they wear or eat, games you play, stories you read. If they have control over small things, it can make them feel better. Balance giving them choices and control with giving them structure and routines. They will feel unsafe if they run the show. Cheer them on as they try new things. They can also feel more in control when they can put their shoes on, put a puzzle together, pour juice.
Even before the lockdown, your mokopuna might have had tantrums. They are a normal part of being little. It’s frustrating when you can’t do things and when you don’t have the words to say what you want or need. Now, with all the changes your mokopuna has a lot to be upset about (just like you) and might really need to cry and yell.
Ideas to help respond to tantrums
Let them know you understand how hard this is for them. “Things have changed. It’s been unsettling. We can’t do some of things we used to do or see (friends/whānau) and you’re mad, but things are changing everyday.” Tolerate tantrums more than you usually would and respond with love rather than discipline. You might not normally do this, but things are not normal. If they cry or yell, stay with them and let them know you are there for them. Reasonable limits should be set if tantrums become frequent or are extreme.
For mokopuna, hitting is a way of expressing anger. When mokopuna hit adults they feel unsafe. It’s scary to be able to hit someone who’s supposed to protect you. Hitting can also come from seeing other people hit each other.
Ideas to help encourage gentle and calm behaviours
Each time your mokopuna hits, let them know that this is not OK. Hold their hands, so they can’t hit, and have them sit down.
Say something like, “It’s not OK to hit, it’s not safe. When you hit, you are going to need to sit down.” If your mokopuna is not old enough, give them the words to use or tell them what they need to do. Say, “Use your words. Say I want that toy.” Help them express anger in other ways, such as playing, talking and drawing. If you are having conflict with other adults, try to work it out in private, away from where your mokopuna can see or hear you. If needed, talk with a friend or professional about your feelings.
The real problem is the changes brought on by the pandemic and everything that is happening but your mokopuna is too little to fully understand that. When things go wrong, mokopuna often get mad at their whānau because they believe they should be able to stop the changes from happening. You are not to blame, but now is not the time to defend yourself. Your mokopuna needs you.
Ideas to help with big feelings
Remember what your mokopuna is going through. They don’t mean everything they say – they’re angry and dealing with so many difficult feelings. Support their feelings of anger, but gently redirect the feelings towards the pandemic and the changes that are happening to keep everyone safe. “You are really mad. Lots of changes are happening. I’m mad too. I really wish they weren’t happening, but even mums can’t make pandemics not happen. It’s so hard for both of us.”
Your mokopuna needs you. They might be feeling sad and overwhelmed. When mokopuna are stressed, some yell and others shut down. Both need their loved ones.
Ideas for help with big feelings
Sit by your mokopuna and keep them close. Let them know you care. If you can, give words to their feelings. Let them know it’s OK to feel sad, mad or worried. “It seems like you don’t want to do anything. I wonder if you are sad. It’s OK to be sad. I will stay with you.” Try to do things with your mokopuna, anything they might like, such as reading a book, singing and playing together.