I have had a number of desperate parents reaching out for advice and suggestions on surviving with our precious energetic boys in particular. They are struggling with home isolation – which for many is like being in prison (actually it's possible prisoners get more time outside every day than a lot of kids right now).
This article is geared mainly for parents of boys, however not all boys and definitely some girls will be struggling the sense of being trapped inside our homes, while also being expected to do schoolwork.
Everyone is stressed
Let's be honest – everyone is feeling stressed, anxious, sad and frightened as we live through this global pandemic.
Our lives have been tipped upside down and there is no normal and that triggers our primitive brain to react exactly as it is. Given that we have no idea when this will end, our amygdala just keeps registering there is still a threat to our survival!
Our main job as grown-ups, especially as parents, is to be the big safe people that our children need to lean on during times of stress and uncertainty.
Many parents have lost their job suddenly, others are working in essential services – being exposed daily to the threat of coronavirus – and many other parents are trying to do full-time jobs from home with children under their feet while doing schoolwork.
This is one of the few times in your life you might be grateful for teenagers rather than toddlers!
All kids need movement
Boys – especially our feisty 'rooster' boys – have a tendency to have a higher need for physicality.
This means they require movement for so many fundamental needs. One of the key things to remember is that boys use physical movement to help them discharge excess cortisol, the stress hormone, during these really stressful times.
This means that many boys will be needing more vigorous movement than usual, often spontaneously and erratically, to help them feel better. This will explain the need to jump up and down on the couch while watching TV, being unable to sit still while eating dinner and it also may mean your son may be fondling his best friend (his penis) more often.
These activities are self-soothing and reduce stress … much the same way as grown-ups reach for coffee, tea and Tim Tams.
The second reason your son needs movement is that it helps to create the neurochemical dopamine, which helps him to stay focused and alert – while doing schoolwork or play. This is one of the biggest problems with our current schooling system, where boys' movement has become so limited that they are struggling with the learning and ability to self-regulate and stay focused.
Another possible reason younger boys under six need so much movement is that it helps the body to build sensory awareness, proprioceptive and vestibular capacity, which will help him physically, emotionally, cognitively and hormonally. If you are lucky enough to have a trampoline or a basketball backboard already – this will help enormously!
Okay, now you know the reasons your son needs to move – and this goes for boys right the way through to the early teen years – what options do we have when we are spending so much time at home.
Nature is a necessity
Spending time outdoors will help your son restore himself, discharge excess energy, and be physically active in many inexplicable ways as possible – without damaging your furniture, your walls and anything breakable!
If you are trying to just fit 20 to 30 minutes of outside time into your day thinking it will help your boys function better – please think again. They often need at least 40 minutes to an hour and this is a great opportunity for you to join them in discharging your excess stress as well. Whether it be a vigorous bike ride, a ride on a scooter or skateboard, sprinting races around an oval, kicking a ball, or shooting hoops this needs to be full-on and flat-out – stuff that makes them puff.
Remember your family can be active outside as long as they stay two metres away from anyone else! According to Dr John Ratey this type of exercise triggers the flooding of dopamine and it also triggers the prefrontal cortex to develop empathy and compassion. How good is that?
When you get home from this activity, you should be able to get an hour of focused activity done with your son – and make sure you feed him as well!
If you have an exercise bike or running or rowing machine, a ping pong table, tennis ball on a pole, or a punching bag out on the veranda – great. Your family can do this exercise indoors and out.
Dopamine can also be created when boys do activities that make them feel they have achieved something and yes sometimes that is being competitive with others and it is also created when boys set themselves a target that they strive to reach.
So this may be building something with Lego, cooking something or testing himself physically – throwing cushions or jumping to reach a door frame every time he passes through. If you are lucky to have a passageway or corridor, use some way to mark crosses or circles around a metre apart. When your boy starts to get a bit restless, he can do double jumps onto each of the circles – up and down your corridor until he is puffing. He can also time himself and gradually try to beat his own time. Of course he will want to beat his parents so be prepared to get amongst it!
Simple physical challenges can also include sit ups, press ups, step ups and planking. Keeping track of progress will help keep you motivated to do better next time. There are lots of free videos online to give you some ideas if you need them.
This is a really simple way to give your son dopamine hit. It can be as simple as using a rubbish bin and a softball, or screwed up ball the paper. The sense of striving and sometimes achieving will give him a wonderful flood of dopamine. If you have a hard wall or veranda you can set up a target on, he can use any soft ball or tennis ball to spend time trying to hit the centre of the target and this will keep him focused and alert. Kicking a ball against the wall outside might drive you mad with the noise, however you will have a calmer boy afterwards.
Fortunately today many boys are happy to join in dance offs thanks to things like Fortnite and TikTok – so again challenge your kids to a family dance off, and one they can share with their mates online.
The good news
Many boys intuitively know when they need to move while they are doing homework, schoolwork or even watching TV. Please don't discourage him from fidgeting. Let him bounce around on his bottom, sprawl over his desk, tap his leg, chew his biro or go wandering around the house – this is exactly what he needs to do. He can finally do it without getting busted by the teacher!
Many boys are struggling without the chance to play sport with mates and that sadness can become anger. Remember your son is not tough and he will likely be using his behaviour (rather than his words) to communicate how he is travelling.
Reassure him regularly he is loved, you have enough food, this horrible time will pass. Hug or punch him gently on the arm often and remember that it's important for him to stay connected to his mates and friends online!
This may be a good time to prioritise a well-timed fart too – a little laughter and lightness can do wonders.
Maggie Dent is a parenting author and educator and host of the ABC podcast, Parental As Anything. Maggie is working on a new book about tween and teen boys, which will be published by Pan Macmillan later this year. www.maggiedent.com