Struggling to cope during the coronavirus crisis? Try Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help you adjust to the ‘new normal’

Dr Gill Harris, Consultant Paediatric Clinical Psychologist
Dr Maddy Harris, Clinical Psychologist


In times of crisis – such as the one we are currently living in – parents may find that the normal stresses of everyday life are magnified and additional worries and concerns emerge. Knowing how to cope may prove difficult, but an approach which has widely been discussed in the media and on social media is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).The premise of ACT is that fears and anxieties are seen as real and cannot be ‘challenged’ away, unlike with cognitive behavioural therapy. By concentrating on our actions we are able to work past our fears. This method may help those struggling with this new chaotic routine we find ourselves in. The Infant & Toddler Forum are here to help with our top tips on how to apply this intervention.


The basics of ACT are:

Accept your reactions and be present
Choose a valued direction
Take action


1. Be aware of all of the worries and anxieties buzzing around your head

It is okay to feel frightened, to be worried, to be sad and to be angry. Allow yourself these feelings. These worries are real, you can’t ‘challenge’ them; you are not being irrational. There are many things at the moment that you cannot control, and it is difficult to cope with the perfectly natural feelings of fear and anxiety.

You cannot control how you feel, but you can control what you do today, tomorrow and the next day.


2. Relax your body

Sit comfortably in your chair. Concentrate on calming your breathing and being aware of your body. Uncross your legs, settle your hands on your lap, and sit up straight. Check through your body. Can you feel any tension? If so tighten and relax those muscles. Sit, relax and calm your body. When your body is calm, then you can start on calming your mind.


3. Think about what is going on in your head!

As if you were an outsider looking into your own brain, look at all that is buzzing around in there.

We need to focus on what is under our control, and leave to one side anything that is out of our control. Write all of these worries down under three headings:

a) This is terrifying but I can do nothing about it

Think carefully about these worries, they are general and vague, and not under your control at the moment.

Can you act on them in any way? If not write everything down that you can do nothing about.

AND THEN, park the worries in your virtual car park. They are going nowhere, leave them there. If you find yourself visiting them then walk away! This virtual car park will be full of past worries that you could do nothing about because most of the things that you worried about didn’t happen.

b) I can do something about this – but not just now

You might be able to act on these worries, arranging appointments or preparing your child for school, but only when the time comes to do so.

These go on your ‘worry later’ list – write everything down and put it somewhere safe to revisit in a few months’ time.

c) I can do something about this

This is the most important list – and the one that you concentrate on.


Focus on what’s in your control

Can you do anything about these worries? The answer is – yes, there are some things you can do!

  • Children become anxious when their routine changes, and more stroppy, and more avoidant in their eating.
  • Be authoritative (the best parenting strategy; light control and love). Set up routines for every day, use visual timelines where necessary. Have Sunday as a pyjama day if necessary, otherwise, up and engage with the day in some way. This is difficult if you are working from home, but you can alternate physical activity with quiet time, and yes it is okay to turn on the TV for an hour! The routines for the children should alternate structured activity with free play breaks – just like school.
  • Use relaxation techniques both for yourself and your children. Mindfulness is not always the best technique when you are very worried and not skilled in the method. Instead, download deep muscle relaxation techniques with visualisation. These techniques still the body, and ensure that, whilst visualising, you have something to concentrate on. The visualisation techniques can be used with some children as young as three years. Practice the relaxation for short periods throughout the week.
  • It is also good to remember that behavioural techniques do work very well with most children if used properly*. Stars or points should be given immediately for the required action. These can then be traded in for the reward, chosen by the child, at the end of the week. This technique rarely fails. (Remember never to take a point away for unwanted behaviour and be consistent).
  • Set up a ‘time out space’, a room, a tent in the corner, where anyone can go (including you or your partner). Have your own ‘green card’ system in place. When things get too much for your child, or one of your children, then your child can hold up their green card and go to their time-out space, without question. Of course some canny children will start to use this to avoid completing their fractions worksheet, but this is where you start to use the behavioural techniques (stars and points).
  • Use a change of pace and activity if your child is getting too anxious or stressed. Move to whatever sooths them; singing, hugging, jumping – the soothing activity will be specific to your child!
  • If it all gets too much, then access your feelings; you are allowed to feel stressed, worried and angry. Sit, calm yourself, acknowledge the feelings, and then focus on what you can do.

My child is still not eating properly, but can I do anything about this now?

  • Any time of high anxiety is not the time when your child is likely to move on and try new foods, but you might have more time to do food related activities.
  • Sow vegetables.
  • You might be able to cook more – and just get your child to look at the food you are preparing. Touch, smell and interact with foods. Even looking online at photos of food that you might be ordering from the supermarket is useful.
  • Any sensory type of play is useful, not necessarily with foods, but with anything sticky, fluffy or soggy. Digging in the garden to look for worms would be ideal!

What if we run out of ‘safe’ foods?

  • Speak to supermarket managers, contact any outlet that you can, and ask to be allowed to stock pile
  • Keep in touch with your local community for help

Remember, if you feel anxious and stressed; calm, breathe, accept your worries, and then ask yourself – ‘What can I do right now?‘

*Behavioural techniques may not work well with all children on the Autism spectrum, and some children who might be in foster care and have a disorganised attachment style.


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Further Reading

  • By Melanie Pilcher and Dr. Gillian Harris Establishing bedtime routines for toddlers and young children
  • By Dr. Gillian Harris, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Applied Developmental Psychology at the University of Birmingham and ITF member Most parents will struggle at some point to get their toddlers to eat certain foods. Is toddler food refusal a sign of an eating disorder. or is it merely a phase? In the run up to Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Gill Harris provides practical advice to help parents tackle fussy eating in toddlers.  
  • By Lucy Upton, on behalf of the Infant and Toddler Forum On behalf of the members of the Infant and Toddler Forum, I am proud to announce the launch of a new infant feeding educational programme, which includes practical resources for frontline healthcare professionals (HCPs) working with parents and infants.