Reactions to change and supporting tamariki

Reactions to change and supporting tamariki

Advice to support tamariki during COVID-19 related disruptions

Supporting tamariki

During a period of disruption, our feelings of safety can be undermined. Helping tamariki feel safe takes time, patience and reassurance from the important adults in their lives. When tamariki are scared, they also want to be with people who help them feel safe and they might worry when they are not together. 

Tamariki 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 tamariki that we can do things together that help us feel better. Reassure tamariki 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 tamariki may react, and what you can do

Tamariki may show the impacts of stress in different ways. When tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki and describes how whānau or kāiako can respond.

When tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki is not being difficult on purpose. This might take time, but when they feel safer and they will sleep better.

Tamariki who cannot yet speak or say how they feel might show their fear by clinging or crying.  Goodbyes might remind your tamariki of any separation where they got worried about something.

Tamariki react to separations through physical changes (stomach sinks, heart beats faster). Something inside says, “Oh no, I can’t lose her/him”. Your tamariki 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 tamariki by naming their feelings and linking them to what they are worried about. Let your tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki’s level of stress goes down, their eating habits will return to normal. Don’t force your tamariki to eat. Eat together and make mealtimes fun and relaxing. Keep healthy snacks around. Tamariki often eat on the go. If you are worried, or if your tamariki loses a significant amount of weight, consult a doctor.

Often when tamariki 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 tamariki have gained it (like starting to wet the bed again) can make them feel ashamed or embarrassed. Whānau should be understanding and supportive. Your tamariki 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 tamariki – it creates a power struggle. Instead of focusing on the ability (like not using the potty), help your tamariki feel understood, accepted, loved and supported. As your tamariki feels safer, they will recover the ability that was lost.

Tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki 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. Tamariki run, jump and fidget. When our minds are stuck on scary things, it’s hard to pay attention to other things. Some tamariki are naturally active.

Ideas to help with lots of energy

Help your tamariki to recognise their feelings (fear, worry) and reassure your tamariki that your whānau has a plan that’s keeping everyone safe and getting through after the lockdown. Help your tamariki 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 tamariki 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.

Tamariki 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 tamariki talks about what is happening, strong feelings might come up both for you and your tamariki (fear, sadness, anger).

Ideas for supporting calm and supportive play

Listen to your tamariki when they talk about what they saw. As your tamariki plays, notice the feelings they have and help them by naming feelings and being there to support them (hold and soothe them). If your tamariki 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, tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki have control over small things. Give tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki, hitting is a way of expressing anger. When tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki 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 tamariki is too little to fully understand that. When things go wrong, tamariki 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 tamariki needs you.

Ideas to help with big feelings

Remember what your tamariki 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 tamariki needs you. They might be feeling sad and overwhelmed. When tamariki are stressed, some yell and others shut down. Both need their loved ones.

Ideas for help with big feelings

Sit by your tamariki 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 tamariki, anything they might like, such as reading a book, singing and playing together.