The World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic has meant sudden changes in the way we live, behave and think. It has threatened our physical health, our livelihoods, our socialization, and occupation and academic functioning.
For adults, it means no work, working from home and/or still going to work albeit with numerous challenges. To manage the situation, adults have been advised by public health professionals and governments to take precautions such as maintaining physical distance and practicing personal hygiene. These recommendations also need to be understood from the lens of children.
What it Means for Children
Physical distancing means that children either cannot play or their play is limited. Further, the school setting as a protective and social mechanism for children has been suddenly taken away. Being on a compulsory holiday due to a crisis is much different from a regular holiday. Children might wonder, “What kind of holiday is this where my parents are at home with me?”
Children are now without the structure, stimulation, predictability, and play that is critical for growth and development and mental health. Their day-to-day routine is interrupted and the world is thrown upside down. Learning from home is challenging due to distractions or lack of necessary know-how or tools.
While adults may have the cognitive resources to access and understand information on COVID-19, children are often left confused by the information, unless it is explained to them in simple language. Big words such as quarantine and numbers are too abstract for children to comprehend.
Mental Anguish/Little Coping
Play, peer socialization, and routine are key resources that children use to reduce their distress in times of crisis. What COVID-19 means for children is that the world as they know it has drastically changed, their coping skills have been greatly restricted, and the adults around them are anxious.
It also means that they are more vulnerable to forms of abuse and human rights violations without access to safety and support school, social and religious gatherings provide. Diminished coping resources, panic and anxiety, confusion, and worry about life as they know it put children’s mental health at risk.
Possible Stress Reactions
COVID-19 pandemic is an immediate and perceived threat to life. Three broad common reactions to sudden and severe stressful situations such as the current public health crisis are under-response, over-response, or freeze-response. An under-response may be characterized by apathy, boredom, or little attention to the situation.
An over-response may be intentionally putting oneself in danger, having anger outbursts, or being in a state of panic and constant anxiety. A freeze-response is one where a person feels like all that is happening around them is not real. It is as if they are watching themselves from outside their own bodies and recent events may feel like they happened a long time ago. In addition, one may become numb to his or her senses or the situation.
Family Mental Health
It is possible that the country may be experiencing all stress reactions. Becoming aware of stress responses and identifying which one(s) you may be experiencing is important for your own mental health and wellbeing and that of your family. Children often look to parents on how to feel and behave.
COVID-19 is an imminent threat to your family’s mental wellbeing. However, there is hope in being proactive and practicing mental hygiene for yourself and your family.
Give correct information in a calm, creative, and child-friendly way. Explain the symptoms of COVID-19 and what might happen if children or a family member becomes infected. WHO and UNICEF are credible sources of information and have good infographics.
Role model appropriate behaviour during this pandemic. Keep in mind that how children cope depends on what you are teaching through your words and actions. Remaining calm, observing personal hygiene and one-meter physical distance not only helps you feel safe but also demonstrates correct behaviour to the children around you.
Allow yourself and your children to experience feelings of worry, sadness, loneliness, boredom, and anger.
Achieve balance through a consistent schedule of activities. Routine helps both children and adults have a sense of control over their lives. Create a flexible timetable of activities on a daily and weekly basis, including sleeping and waking up at the same time every day, having regular meals, and exercise.
Adding novelty and adventure to your day will help you have something to look forward to and give all a positive distraction.
Allow yourself and your children to experience feelings of worry, sadness, loneliness, boredom, and anger. Adults and children alike experience distress albeit in different ways. Use emoticons or drawings of feeling faces to help children identify how they feel.
Be aware that children in distress may present with recurrent nightmares and sleep difficulties, changes in eating habits such as over or under eating, acting out and or being withdrawn, experiencing body aches without any physical illness, having new and irrational fears, regression in speech and behavior (e.g. bedwetting), being overly clingy with parent, and disinterest in previously enjoyed activities.
Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing with your children. Imagine you are holding a hot cup of tea. Breathe in the warm aroma, hold it for three seconds, then breathe out into the cup to cool down the tea.
While it important to keep abreast of the latest news, listening to news and watching videos on Coronavirus for many hours in a day are counter-productive for both yourself and your children. Monitor what your children are watching including violent or inappropriate content which may increase their levels of fear and anxiety.
COVID-19 pandemic brings anxiety and uncertainty about the future but also opportunities to spend more time with family and practice healthy habits. Find something positive to focus on, one day at a time.