Laverne Antrobus – challenges for key workers and family life

Key workers across different sectors have some big questions about how to continue to do their work and look after their children in this time of huge upheaval and uncertainty.  

How to explain that you want and need to keep working, managing your worries about the spread of the virus, and how to reassure children that you and they are safe at work and at school.

When the news came a couple of weeks ago that schools would be closing because of COVID-19 the landscape changed for all of us. Without, it seems, even a moment to draw breath, parents and children have had to find a way to trust that continuing to go to work and school is vitally important if collectively we are going to manage this crisis.  Of course there is often huge pride for children in knowing that their parents are part of the helping professions, but at this point it may feel quite difficult to hold onto this.  

Whilst many parents will have had the task of getting used to home working, key workers will have known that this was not going to be an option for many of them. 

The news that key workers’ children would continue to have a place at school came quickly, and with the relief came a number of questions in the minds of adults and children about what being a key worker now meant.  And some of these, for parents, might feel unspeakable.  

How do I keep working in situations that might put me and my family at risk?  

How do I explain that my work commitments will mean that my children have to continue to go to school?  And will they be safe there?

And other questions about what happens for key workers and their children but not for everyone.  Lockdown surely means just that! But of course lockdown means different things for adults and their families in certain professional roles. 

As this pandemic has continued to develop there is a need to keep talking to children about this changing landscape – for some children this may have felt at first like  the beginning of an extended school holiday.  But it is now week two and children of key workers have been attending school as usual, but of course there is nothing usual about school at the moment. So   as the traditional Easter break approaches, how to explain to children that this probably will continue for some time to come and that it won’t end after the holiday – key worker parents will still be working. 

As the reality of this new normal continues, parents will probably be aware of the need to stay alert to the spoken and unspoken worries that their children may have.

How do you have a conversation following the daily briefings which bring news about testing, resources and the numbers of people who are sadly losing their lives.  For those parents who are key workers, and their children, these are uncertain times, feelings of fear, upset and possibly anger are surely somewhere in the minds of your families.  

Thankfully, the thinking and more rational parts of the brain will, with your explanations and reassurances, reason away some of these thoughts, but this may only provide temporary relief for children who because of their age, or their own psychological and emotional needs, find it hard to hold onto these explanations. You may need to explain more than once, to help them regain balance. 

So, how do you manage the emotional roller coaster that you find yourself?

One key task is to find ways to not only remind yourself of the value of your role, but to allow yourself to think about your own worries.  Some of these might take you to places that ordinarily you do not usually have to visit, but by allowing yourself to notice your own ‘not knowing’ you might be able to begin the journey back to what will help you to feel fully equipped, practically and psychologically, for what you are facing.

Speak up and seek reassurance that everything is being done to keep you safe in your job, and ask how your employers will respond when you need a helping hand to get you back to somewhere near your best.  At these times, being in a team and/or finding a colleague to talk to has never been more important – and the difficulties you are facing in relation to your children are very unlikely to be yours alone. 

​ For your children it will be important to talk about your work, perhaps in a bit more detail that you would normally, to let them know that everything possible is being thought about to keep you safe.  And importantly that you would not be sending them to school if you did not trust that they will be safe there too.

Being clear yourself about how the school is operating will help you to have confidence when talking to your child.  Check in with staff about how they are managing the children, and ask them to give you feedback if they have any worries about how your child is coping.

You may also need to give space to allow your child to talk about how upsetting it is to still be going to school when their friends are not.  Whilst they may be proud of your role, they may also resent the fact that this has an impact on them.  Talk about the breaks you plan to take (because your annual leave is still important) and how you and they can spend some different time together.

You will probably be completely worn out due to the mental and physical impact this crisis is having on your well being, so take time to find something relaxing that you can do to recharge your batteries, if only temporarily, but also find short bursts of time (ten to fifteen minutes) to sit with your child doing something that they want to do with you.  The usual rules apply; give them your full attention and that little bit of tlc that you both need.​ As far as you can, it helps if you can keep being  the mum or dad that they know, even though there is so much that is new and uncertain for everybody. 

Laverne Antrobus is a Consultant Child and Educational Psychologist at the Tavistock and Portman. Laverne talks about the challenges for key workers and family life, where children (and parents) may have all sorts of feelings about a situation where work might be felt to be an unsafe place, and where school has suddenly become  a very different place. She talks about the range of feelings that there might be for both parents and children, and has some ideas about how to help children to manage and how to look after yourself as a parent, and a key worker in this difficult and constantly changing situation.

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