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It’s okay not to be okay – understanding loneliness when caregiving for young children

07 December 2020 | by Guest

This article is a collaboration between educational psychologists and mothers Abigail Wright, Gemma Ellis and Victoria Wolfe.

Developing the findings and research from the Royal Foundation, we have summarised our thoughts with some psychological concepts and practical steps to support caregivers of young children at this time.

Please note: throughout this piece we use the term ‘caregiver’ to refer to both parents and carers.

The Royal Foundation’s report promotes and adds to the growing body of research which shows us that the experiences that a child has during their first five years (particularly the first two years) are not only key to their learning and happiness during that phase, but for positive outcomes across all areas of their development later on in life.

At the same time, we are also learning more about a lot of challenges that caregivers of young children experience. These can impact on the way in which a caregiver feels ready and able to communicate and interact with their child and support their child’s development.

Some examples of these key challenges reported by caregivers can include, stress, caregivers’ health needs, perceptions of ourselves as caregivers, financial challenges, lack of support from others, and loneliness.

The latter two have significantly increased as a direct consequence of the pandemic and ‘social distancing’ measures.

At the start of lockdown, a blog published by the BPS quoted research by the British Red Cross and the Co-op carried out before the pandemic in 2018 that found that over 80% of mums under 30 feel lonely ‘some of the time’, and over 40% feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’.

However, worryingly, in November 2020 the Office for National Statistics recorded record levels of loneliness in the UK since the start of the pandemic.

In the Royal Foundation’s findings, loneliness has increased to almost double the figure recorded before the pandemic.

Those who were already experiencing additional demands, for example due to financial/emotional/health needs, reported this feeling even more so.

Another aspect appears to be the fact that loneliness is something that can feel difficult to talk about and hard to understand.

When you are caregiving it brings up a lot of feelings about who we are and how we make sense of ourselves.

Professor Pamela Qualter talks about the ‘stigma’ of loneliness that people report – could that be even more so with caregivers of very young children when we are told this is ‘a special time’ or to ‘treasure every moment’?

We believe that helping caregivers to feel connected to others, as well as secure in themselves, is key to a more enjoyable and mutually beneficial experience of caregiving for an under five year old.

The importance of feeling connected and engaged with others is particularly pertinent during those early years of parenting, when you are shifting your identity and role and concept of yourself.

Loneliness can have an adverse effect on our wellbeing and mental health as caregivers. Psychologically it is likely to impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, but physically, it also means that we are less likely to obtain the key thing that can help us at times of feeling lonely – social support.

It is also important to highlight that caregivers can feel lonely even when they have other people around them - for example, if they feel that they are unable to relate to/access others or information.

This is certainly an issue that can also grow independently of the pandemic. In thinking about loneliness with infants under five we are perhaps drawing on our own capacity to be alone without a reflective/thinking other (i.e. another thoughtful adult).

Infants need us to be there (both emotionally and physically), and for that to happen, it helps if we have a good concept of who we are and what we ourselves need.

Interestingly, in the BBC loneliness experiment, they found that parents tended to feel less lonely - except if they were parents of young children. Is there something specific about parenting an under five year old that could make parents feel more lonely? Whatever it is this has clearly been exacerbated for many by the pandemic.

Another key finding from the Royal Foundation was that caregivers feel judged and we wonder if some of that judgement can come from ourselves. Being a ‘good enough’ caregiver, or providing ‘enough good’ is what we need to work towards.

If we, or other supportive individuals are ‘present and connected enough’, then we are also encouraging our future generations’ capacity to feel validated and loved.

Therefore, we will enable them to think about how they can be comfortable with themselves and subsequently feel less lonely.

It is important that we recognise that each individual has a unique context (e.g., internal/external/historical/present).

Whilst all caregivers have parenting in common, just as no individual can be the same - no caregiver can be the same.

Our unique context and circumstances will ultimately all have an impact on how we care for and support our children.

Therefore, as the Royal Foundation’s report highlights:

“we all play a part to address parents’ feelings of insecurity and loneliness, build their confidence and knowledge and create networks of trusted support”.

Here are some ways in which we can use psychology in the community to support caregivers of early years children:

  1. Think about how you use language - for example, when you are describing a caregiver, their child, and their interactions. Language can be so powerful and have a significant impact on how a person (and their child) thinks or feels, and in turn can shape their interactions with their child. Try to use person-centred language, this means talking about a caregiver/child and focus on unique strengths, interests and needs (for example, “I love that way that when your little one is babbling, you are joining in and helping them to express their needs”).

  2. Encourage people to think about the context around caregiver and the child – to avoid making a negative judgement or ascribing blame to them. Might the child be finding something particularly challenging, or could there be something tough going on for the child/family? Try to put yourself in the shoes of the child/caregiver and think about what you could do to offer some non-judgemental support. Encourage the idea that everyone’s circumstances are unique – and “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

  3. Value and respond to caregivers’ experiences - as they are the ones who know themselves and their child best. However, there are others that might feel as though we understand or know better than those we are trying to help - but we need to really hear what people are saying to us and respect that they know what they are talking about. If we really believe this, we can start to encourage caregivers to believe this and to have ownership and confidence in their own stories.

  4. Rather than thinking that someone is hard to reach, think about whether you are reaching out to them appropriately - The more lonely and isolated you feel the harder it can be to reach out. When we reach out to others whose loneliness may be exacerbated by challenging circumstances, we have to show that we are a safe space for them and build up that trusted relationship so that it is okay to share. It is the role of professionals, and the communities supporting the caregivers, to make sure that they ‘get it right’ and reach those that need help, not for those who are struggling to feel that they have to be ‘easy to engage with’. Be open and curious about everyone and people will feel safer to share. Also, remember that a friendly smile could go a long way in helping people feel more comfortable in a challenging situation.

Here are some tips for caregivers themselves:

  1. Focus on building emotional connections - Communication and connection are not the same. Many of us are restricted in our capacity to give and receive hugs and affection from loved ones at the current time. Research suggests that caregiver touch and general responsiveness can moderate the stress response in infants. This too can work reciprocally for the caregiver – receiving touch from the infant can reduce stress and increase positive hormones and in due course contribute positively to wellbeing. Seek out connections with friends, colleagues and loved ones who offer positive feedback, understanding and appreciation. You can also benefit from the connectivity to your hobbies, for example gardening, sewing or running.

  2. Don’t compare yourself to others - Be cautious around social media, often people post only a snapshot of their life- what they want you to see - not the real picture. We can only do our best in our own circumstances, and social media doesn’t understand context – it is static. Caregiving is challenging, and the responsibility of it can feel overwhelming, but focusing on what you can control in our own circumstances and seeing the positive impact of that can feel really empowering and satisfying.

  3. Try to think of ways we can make ourselves available to others without this feeling too overwhelming – For example, you could start asking how someone is and by sharing how we are struggling it can help those around us. It’s okay to say you are not okay, to say it has been a hard day. Those around you will hopefully welcome this as a way to feel it is safe to share how they are feeling.

  4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and seek help if challenges are increasing/persisting - If you’re beginning to feel that the loneliness is having a significant impact on your daily life, you should speak to your GP, a professional, or a volunteer from a supportive agency/organisation (some ideas below) who may suggest further support which might include ‘talking therapies’ or related support. Therapy/support can help to understand and examine the possible causes of loneliness, which in turn can enable you to reach out to others and make changes. Seeking this kind of support could also help you to develop strategies for looking out for the positives around you. This does not mean that you ignore the difficulties, but you can work on changing your perspectives to find some strengths/hope in a situation.

There are also a number of online services available to caregivers that can help support them whilst caring for young children, including the following:

The Royal Foundation wonderfully emphasised the stories of hope and kindness and connectedness that are possible in the pandemic world and after.

There have been moments where this is possible and we need to work together to make this happen more and more.

Starting by being kind to ourselves and showing ourselves small acts of kindness might give us more capacity to do this with other people, and then that smile or other small act can pass on and pass on and pass on.

Knowing you are lonely, emotionally or physically, is a step towards understanding that further, and finding ways through with our internal resources and - where we can - external connections.

Kindness is there, sometimes we just need to look for it in a different way.


Information about the authors:

  • Dr Abigail Wright

    Abigail is an early years lead educational psychologist for a Local Authority in South Wales and a BPS Division of Educational and Child Psychology Committee Member. She has written articles and blogs related to her special interests in the early years, play, caregiving and attachment, social communication and interaction, and autistic spectrum condition. Abigail is also a mum to two preschool aged girls.

  • Dr Gemma Ellis

    Gemma is a professional tutor at Cardiff University and the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust and a senior Educational Psychologist for Bath and North East Somerset. She is published in the areas of supervision and reflective practice, sexualised behaviour in children and the experiences of school staff who work with children who have been exposed to domestic abuse. She draws upon psychoanalytic and systemic frameworks amongst others. She is a single mum of two young girls.

  • Dr Victoria Wolfe

    Vicki is an independent Child & Educational Psychologist, working across charity, private and local authority settings. She is published in the areas of teaching staff supervision and reflective practice, and positive parental engagement with schools. Vicki is a Mum to 7-yr old twins and a toddler. She is also a volunteer for the Twins Trust, which is a charity offering support and advice to parents of twins, triplets and more!

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