An Interview with Nathan Wallis.

As parents, we feel we need to have it all together. We’re expected to always be at our best and balanced for our households and children. The reality is, right now, life is far from perfect. We’ve been thrown an unprecedented mother of all curve balls.

Level Four lockdown has disrupted our homes, our families, our work and our sense of wellbeing.

The conditions we’re all experiencing in Level 4 lockdown is changing what life looks like, and it’s normal to feel anxious. To help us understand how we can help alleviate anxiety in children, we went to the experts. 

Neuroscience educator, Nathan Walllis, shares his 10 tips to keeping our children emotionally safe and secure during this time.


1 Embrace the new normal

“Working from home is the new normal. Sometimes your children need your attention and it’s often easier to pause work for a moment to give them what they need before returning to your work.

It’s ridiculous that to be professional we often pretend that we don’t have children, you feel like you have to lock them in another room. Whereas, actually, it’s much more natural to say, “Sorry, just a moment. Got to attend to my child’s needs.”


2 Stay positive 

“Research has shown the number one indicator of how resilient or traumatised a child will be is their parent’s reaction to a situation. What children need to see is us parents acknowledging that we’re in a scary situation but modelling resilience by making positive statements.

An example is saying, “Oh yes, but I’m sure we’re going to get through this. New Zealand’s responding really well. Everyone’s staying inside their bubble. The whole community is coming together”.


3 Be honest

Children – even babies – notice when they experience change. As a parent, we can acknowledge that this [living in Covid19 conditions] is new and a bit scary.

If you don’t acknowledge it and just say to the kids, “No, everything’s fine, don’t you worry about it,” then their imagination’s left to run wild and they think the worst possible thing. It is important to acknowledge that new things can be worrying, but then leave them with that resiliency-building statement of, “But I think we’ve got this,”.”


4 Think before you speak

“Language is important. We don’t want to encourage scaremongering – saying things like, “We don’t want people to get sick and we don’t want the germs to get us,” Instead, we want to encourage practices with resiliency building such as, “We’re good at washing our hands. We’re going to keep our hands nice and clean.”

Focus on the action – the hand washing – rather than any negative consequences.” 


5 Keep yourself (and your children) in check

“When toddlers reach about three years old, they usually start to examine fear. They might get scared of something irrational.

Wallis’ son was once scared of the wind and explains, “this type of angst has to do with cognitive development and understanding fear. It doesn’t so much matter what they’re scared of, it’s how the fear is managed. Is the fear response to run under the bed, hide and cry? Or is it to go into someone’s arms, talk about it and calm down?”

What we’re experiencing right now might trigger that development stage and we can help our children by reassuring them.”

6 Put your phone down

“It is possible to work, look after big kids and still give a baby all the best. A single thing that will make a difference is to put your devices down. Only pick your device up again after you’ve interacted with your children.

Putting devices away changes your brain waves so you can attune to a baby. It also lowers your heart rate which babies can detect because they’re in your arms so much.”


7 Make face to face contact

“To make time meaningful, devote your full attention to your child for at least a solid 20-minutes, being led by what they want to do. The more face-to-face contact during the first year of life, the better the outcomes are later. Currently, kids are getting only about two thirds of the facial contact because parents spend a third looking at a screen. Have clear no-device times for kids, too. There is a correlation between how much screen time a child has and their chances of how having anxiety or depression later on.”

8 Get into the rhythm of the day

“Focus more on rhythm than routine, especially now when things feel new and strange. It doesn’t have to mean you have an alarm that goes off to have lunch. It means there is a rhythm in the home e.g.– dinner then a bath, stories, a song before sleep.

Routine helps calm the stress response system, helps children  stay calm and it gives adults self-control. Rhythms and routines give a structure to your day and I think that really buys into self-control. ”


9 Exercise self-control for good mental health

“Self-control is the number one factor for mental wellbeing. Sure, some days are extremely challenging when nothing seems to go to plan. If you exercise self-control during this lockdown and go, “Oh, I need to do 20 minutes of physical exercise a day” or “I need to get up at a regular time,” you’ll probably have good mental health. Alternatively, if you start sleeping later and going to bed later you can miss out on the sunlight hours, lose structure in your day, and  mental health can deteriorate.”


10 Create a sense of calm  

“To lower anxiety levels, research shows yoga, as well as meditation and exercise are techniques to calm that limbic brain – the system and structures in the brain that deals with emotions and memory.   

For me, gratitude is number one on the list. Our brains often encourage us to go to the worst possible scenario [fight or flight response]. So to exercise self-control, do something as simple as list 10 things that are grateful for. By doing this, you are powerfully reprogramming your brain to see things positively.”


Nathan Wallis is a father of three & foster parent with a professional background in child counselling,
teaching and social service management.
He lectured in Human Development at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand and was also a board member and senior trainer with the national body responsible for the dissemination of neuroscientific research to professionals.
He has developed a reputation as a lively and engaging speaker who uses humour and plain language to make this complex topic come to life.