Situations that babies/young children might find particularly difficult/anxious about after a pro-longed period at home and how to help

By Gail, The Playful Expert

All children, of whatever age, experience powerful emotions. The world of young children can be a frightening and uncertain place especially when they have just faced a prolonged period of time at home.

Fear and anxiety are possibly the most common emotional responses that your child may feel and it’s really important to acknowledge that these feelings are reasonable, and to expect them.

It’s only by building up tolerance gently that we can move ourselves and our children through these fears and emotions as we reintroduce them to situations again or introduce them to new ones they haven’t experienced before.

It may not always be easy to spot the signs of anxiety in children and it may present itself in different ways. But here are a few that you may notice:

• finding it hard to concentrate

• difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or repeated nightmares

• having a hard time coping or opening-up

• not eating properly – avoiding eating or comfort eating

• quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts

• constantly worrying, having negative thoughts or afraid of something happening in the future

• difficulty in breathing, or a lot of sweating

• feeling tense and fidgety

• frequent meltdowns or tantrums, or other behavioural challenges

• avoiding crowded places or becoming distressed when approaching/within them

• often upset or tearful for no apparent reason

• being clingy

• complaining of tummy aches and feeling unwell during stressful situations

• needing the toilet more frequently than normal

• avoids meeting new people

However, there are many things that parents can do to help children combat any anxiety they may have, when facing situations again after this period at home:

New social situations - meeting new people

New social situations can prove to be very tricky for young children to face, however it is really important to make sure that they get a wide range of experiences and increase the amount of times they see people, particularly meeting people outside of the home and opportunities to play with other children. Try to encourage your child to interact with other children, taking small steps as their confidence in themselves increases. You could initially join in with their play and then gradually retreat from the play scene once they feel more confident.

Time away from home

If possible now that we are able to do a little more, it would be beneficial to arrange for your child to spend some time away from home and from you as parents. By experiencing such a separation they will be less apprehensive about having to spend time away from home and you, and it will become less of a huge event and more ‘normal’ for them over time. Sleeping away from home

Similarly, it may have been a long time since or even the first time for your child to sleep away from home. Therefore, it is really important to help them to learn how to fall asleep on their own when they have a nap so that if they wake they are then able to self-soothe themselves back to sleep in the night without you being there. You could give them something of yours that is either special to you so that they know you are coming back or an item that smells of you so that they have that reassurance there. Giving them these opportunities to practise sleeping elsewhere will also then help your child if they need to stay away from you suddenly as well at any point.

Crowded social areas such as soft play, supermarkets, shopping centres for example

It may become quite apparent that your child becomes anxious when they are faced with new social situations such as larger environments with more people like soft play, supermarkets or shopping centres. These environments can be noisy and full of people which of course are quite different to the environment that they have been in more recently.

It is really important to increase this exposure gradually if your child feels anxious about it, and allow them lots of opportunities to discuss how they are feeling leading up to visiting these environments or if they arrive and feel overwhelmed.

You could perhaps draw pictures or write key words down so that they can see key information about what they may expect and you could also run through how long you may spend there and what will happen next so they have quite a bit of reassurance and structure to your initial visits. This will then ease them back into situations that they may find difficult and provide them with opportunities to air any worries they may have with you or ask any questions that may be inside their little heads. Children like structure, routine and boundaries so this will make them feel secure and safe.After a period of time at home it will be quite a strange affair eating out and one that may not bring out the best behaviour in your child! They may want to leave the table/get down from their highchair as let’s face it – food being served in a restaurant can sometimes take longer than expected. It also has similar anxiety-provoking elements such as a noisy environment and one where they may be lots of people that are strangers all in more of a close proximity than they have experienced in a very long time.

Eating out at restaurants – getting down from a highchair etc.

To start with perhaps you could go to a café/place to eat out at that you know is more relaxed or child friendly or it could be somewhere that sells food on the go and build back up to sitting formally in a restaurant which you can then have more control over. You could also increase the time you expect your child to sit at the table/in their highchair for and explain what is expected of them so that it isn’t so different when you eat out compared to home.

Having a haircut/going to the dentist

Having a haircut or visiting the dentist can be quite scary at the best of times, without having a period of time away from this routine. If you have a barbers or hairdressers that are more child-friendly (has a novelty seat or special coverall) in your area I’d recommend going there to start with. Also you could go in for a trim and build back up to a full cut after going back more regularly than normal. You could also arrange a chat with your dentist so that your child can see the seat, equipment and dentist without having treatment to start with. This gradual exposure is best and can be built up as slowly as your child needs.

New childcare situations

Your child may find starting back to or starting new childcare situations particularly difficult after a prolonged period of time at home. I’d recommend that they take a gradual approach to this routine as well. It can be built up and done in such a way that they are then reassured when you return each time, learning that you will always come back for them. This can be particularly difficult without having that extended period of time together so it is really important to do this gradually so that it doesn’t create a negative barrier for them to have to overcome.

Further advice how to help your child manage their anxiety

As said above, in most new situations or situations where your child is facing them again after such a long time at home, it is important that you talk to your child and ask them questions about how they are feeling.

Sometimes drawing pictures showing emoji’s such as happy, sad, angry, etc. and then asking your child to point to how they are feeling is a good way to get them to open up.

Try to listen without interruption, so your child feels heard. You may need to help them with words if they are struggling to express themselves or ask them to draw what they are feeling.

You could also use play, such as Lego or little figures, etc. This can help you to see how they are feeling through their play but help them to work through their triggers, stressors and feelings if they are finding things all too much.

Encourage your child to name their feelings so they are able to express themselves a bit better especially when they are feeling overwhelmed. They may give names of their own choosing and it will help you understand how they are feeling.

It is important to give them lots of reassurance and affection so they feel safe and able to explore their feelings with you.

If you are worried about your child feeling anxious and feel it is affecting their day to day life, please do get in touch with your Health Visitor or GP for further support.