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COVID-19, 2020…a time to be remembered

Yvette Willoughby

Child Psychotherapist

There is a beautiful scene in the film La Vita e Bella “Life Is Beautiful ” (1997) where Luigi Orefice courageously shields his son from the horrors he was yet to be faced with in a Nazi concentration camp. His humorous and yet sensitive interpreting of the Camp Guard stays firmly in my mind as an act of what psychoanalyst and philosopher Wilfred Bion may have termed containment or what renowned pediatrician and child psychotherapist Donald Winnicott would term ‘holding’. As parents/carers and significant adults in the lives of children, we are charged with the responsibility to break down the incoming information and the emotions that go along with it into bite size, manageable pieces, which are tolerable to the delicate and vulnerable developing psyche of the child. But how are we able to do this when we ourselves are amidst a ‘state of emergency”, a time of great uncertainty? Suddenly supermarket shelves are evidence of impending deprivation. What once was felt to be abundant is now scarce.

Just like Luigi managing to protect his son from the realities of the Nazi police, talking to children about the current Corona virus epidemic is no simple task. When parents/carers find themselves needing to juggle the care of those children already quarantined, prepare themselves for an inevitable home confinement and look after their basic needs while at the same time dealing with the hyper-aroused state induced by the media of avoiding hand-shaking, touching surfaces, touching your face, hand sanitising and reports of increasing morbidity. they are already susceptible to short fuses and dysregulation. Paranoia breeds paranoia. Holding onto our minds is one of the most important things we can do. Finding ways to ‘hold’ and ‘contain’ ourselves involves a level of acceptance of the emotions that wash over us.

“STAY CALM” they say

Being calm is of utmost importance and although it can feel like a glib cop out, it is a neurological necessity to help our minds stay balanced and rational. Each new report or post or announcement is a likely trigger primitive defences…fight/flight/freeze responses. These can spin us off to imagine all kinds of crises...and this needs to be countered. When we are triggered we may escalate into such heightened states of arousal, we become prone to reactivity and making unwise and unconsidered choices in how we respond to children. Our capacity for warmth and empathy becomes undermined by our cortisol levels and defensively we may find ourselves in states which perpetuate fear and panic, especially in vulnerable children. It is no wonder we are seeing people fighting over toilet rolls! Panic and dysregulation leaves logic far behind. For children, seeing parents this way, adds to their anxieties and being so young and impressionable, can have lasting harmful impacts. SO ‘containing’ and ‘holding’ is what we must do.

Easier said??

Now is the time to make time for yourself and your physical and mental health. Enjoy the sunshine, a walk in the park or along the beach, pat your pets, eat some healthy foods, take your vitamins (especially Cs and Bs). Keeping our central nervous system in check has a physical benefit too, our immunity works best this way. When you are calm and regulated you are in the best state to talk with a child about the current situation. Deep breathing can be very helpful as can mindfulness meditation…see what suits you. There are lots of ‘apps’ available to give you some ideas…try ‘Smiling minds’ or anything by Dan Siegel on You Tube. Finding a space to collect your thoughts, process your feelings and integrate aspects of this new reality will help with the state of shock we can all find ourselves in. The idea is that you want to be receptive to your child, read his/her feelings and cues so that you can know how to best comfort him/her..


Helping children to know that you can imagine what they are feeling is comforting to them. By using PACE Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy (Daniel Hughes, 2010) in our interactions, children are reassured that the adults in their world can still provide the comforting and reassurance they are needing. By offering them a word or a new way of phrasing what they are conveying is also validating and provides children with a language to better articulate their thoughts and feelings.

Sharing ways to stay calm with children is a tool they can use forever. Teach them the techniques you find are helpful…and a few you might have only just learned.


Children are curious and will want to know why the shelves are empty, why school was not allowing the morning assemblies and why holidays have started early. Talk about the science of a virus and the importance of keeping some distance and washing hands or not sharing your drink bottles. Talk about the real symptoms of flu/corona virus and how many people have had it and are surviving. Show them the scenes of Italians singing from their balconies in unison, despite being in quarantine. Talk about this with calmness and assurance. With a young child you might want to use drawings/pictures of viruses or teach a song they can sing to make sure they wash for 20 seconds.


Use the time at home, if you are in quarantine, to learn new things about your child and teach them some about yourself. This can be a time to share some of your favourite childhood movies or novels, dances, songs and games play board games like scrabble/backgammon/chequers/ etc. Do baking, make music, plant vegie seeds. Being creative keeps the right hemisphere of the brain online and is a wonderful outlet for emotions. By scheduling a timetable of activities you can realistically achieve at home (whether or not you stick to it) can give a child a feeling of predictability and structure that assists them in coping with changes to their former routines. For some children, this is an opportunity to build a more secure attachment with their parent or carer. Keeping a written or picture journal of this time might prove to be a treasured memory in future.


Most importantly right now is recognising that we have it in ourselves to adapt to this situation, no matter how challenging it can feel. By staying connected with others, call/video conference, Facebook message…the co-regulation of those who we love and love us will help us all through.

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