The need for hugs, hugs and more hugs!

Many of us are asking some very important questions about how children are being impacted by COVID-19. Our exposure to the pandemic is currently approaching nine months, with many countries now experiencing a second wave.

It’s time we had some clarity around the influence of COVID-19 on children and what supports we can offer them.

Will our children be OK when it comes to their physical and emotional health?

What changes to their lifestyles has COVID-19 brought?

And importantly, what impact will these experiences have on their developing brains and minds?

What we know to be true

Experiences are normal and unavoidable. Some are positive, some are negative and a lot are fairly neutral. Many of our childhood experiences had an individual impact on who we’ve become as adults. In turn, our children’s experiences will influence the type of person that they evolve into.

Critically, many parents are now asking, will COVID related stress have long lasting effects on us as adults and importantly, our children’s brains and minds?

How can we help our children through this period and unforgettable time of COVID-19? How can we best support their resilience and give them skills to avoid long term, potentially negative effects?

Much of the answer is simple and is based on offering hugs, hugs and more hugs!

Let’s explain more...

Stress is a universal experience for everyone. Though normal as it is, many of us struggle with managing stress in ways which are beneficial. Stress in itself is not altogether bad. We need some level of stress to keep going with many daily activities, sustain our motivation and drive us forward.

Research has shown that it’s the “ugly”, unrelenting stress that is not so helpful. This is often called Toxic stress.

Toxic stress is a type of permanent stress, one which we cannot escape and is constantly with us. It doesn’t ease up and is always present.

How does stress impact on the body?

During times of stress, the body reacts by secreting stress hormones, such as cortisol, into the bloodstream. Cortisol helps us to react with fight or flight responses which are normal and essential reactions for perceived threats.

However, stress hormones, when secreted for too long and at high levels, can cause a range of negative effects, for example affecting our memory recall. Continual, sustained stress in a child’s environment can lead to changes in their brain development and in turn, healthy emotional responses.

Have you ever been in an exam and your mind has gone blank? Part of the explanation for this may be due to high levels of cortisol. Because although temporary, short increases in cortisol help us to (initially) form memories and perform at our best, cortisol can also affect the parts of our brain which are important for learning and memory. This can also have a protective effect in terms of not being able to recall stressful and perhaps traumatic events.

Now bring in the Amygdala and our best hormone, Oxytocin!

The amygdala is part of our brain’s limbic system. This is a complex set of structures which deals with emotions, motivation and memory. It is a type of processing centre which receives incoming messages from our senses and helps us to form emotional responses and an understanding of our experiences.

Amygdala overdrive is a type of emotional storm which is almost impossible to control. You may have seen this in your children or another adult when they suddenly burst into tears and report they don’t know why they’re crying; they just are. So how can we help our children?

Be prepared to give some hugs and help the excretion of Oxytocin

When we experience an Amygdala overdrive, a warm hug and gentle reassurance helps to buffer the stress and cocoon us. Small people particularly, can feel very big emotions and are often overwhelmed and frightened when they can’t make sense of uncomfortable feelings.

As parents, being emotionally and physically ‘present’ and offering support, helps our children to regulate their breathing and to calm. It also teaches them early lessons in regulating their emotions.

In addition, hugging and reassurance helps with the secretion of Oxytocin, otherwise known as the love hormone. This is a powerful, natural antidote to stress hormones.

We cannot insulate our children against stress or every negative experience. These are a fact of life. However, we can help them to build resilience. Resilience is how well we recover after stress and is a powerful, protective mechanism.

Resilience also makes children more likely to cope with stressful events and for their reactions to be temporary and timely, rather than having long lasting, negative effects on their brain.

While many of our current experiences with the COVID-19 Pandemic are out of our control, there are still a number of protective actions we can do to help our children build resilience.

One is to genuinely show connection and be sensitive to our children’s needs.

Another is to care well for ourselves, manage our own emotions and make sure our needs are being met so we can care well for them.

And the other may simply be found in offering a hug, then another and another one as well.

Written by Cindy Davenport (Clinical Director Safe Sleep Space) and Jane Barry (Clinical Writer).