Children and young people need to be given basic, age-appropriate information about COVID-19, including its symptoms, complications and prevention measures.
The world’s attention is currently focused on measures to mitigate the transmission and economic effect of COVID-19 pandemic, and Nepal is no exception. Though the government and health officials are constantly working towards taking the necessary steps to manage the pandemic, reduce transmission and treat those who need medical attention, this pandemic has surely affected our daily life: We are all stressed. We all have experienced that social media, television, and print media are all covered with news on the pandemic.
Even our daily conversation is dominated by the outbreak. There is constant talk of lockdown and an increasing number of infected people almost every day. I don’t think we have been discrete enough on our part as to what we talk about in front of our children. As a result, our children are exposed to a large amount of information resulting in higher levels of stress and anxiety in adults around them. Under such circumstances, it is natural for children to experience some amount of anxiety.
The current rapidly changing lockdown situation has further increased the anxiety in children. Initially, they took it as a vacation but now they are becoming restless. As a result of lockdown, children are experiencing changes in their daily routine. Most children are unaware of the current situation. They fail to understand the reason for lockdown, washing hands, and social distancing. My recent conversations with children about COVID-19 proved that they had scant knowledge of the virus and how it travels.
Most parents think it is not necessary for children to know about it. They feel that what they don’t know will not hurt them. They believe in maintaining their ignorance and innocence. Since there are not many cases of children being infected here in Nepal, the fear of contracting the virus isn't the biggest reason for their anxiety for their children. That does not mean children are not impacted at all. They are locked inside, cannot play with friends, they cannot interact socially, schools are closed, and their routine has been upset.
Even if we do not want to acknowledge, children certainly are being impacted by this pandemic. It has changed their lives too. Just because they are resilient does not mean they do not need help. We need to understand that majority of the children are resilient because people they trust do something to assure them. It is entirely possible that they are suffering from mental strain. We as parents need to understand that regardless of our child’s age, this is a difficult time for our children and young adults. It is possible that some will react immediately. Then again some maybe will show signs of difficulty later on. I am sure now parents are thinking, ‘how to know if their child is adversely impacted by the pandemic?’ A child’s reaction to the current situation depends on their age, their level of understanding of the information, their ability to communicate, their previous experiences with difficult situations, and their capacity to cope with stress.
How kids may be reacting
Some of the adverse reactions exhibited by young children may include, concern about their health or that of their family and friends, fear, avoidance, problem sleeping or physical symptoms like having pain in the stomach or head, being anxious, withdrawn, angry, or afraid to be left alone. Some might even have sleeping problems.
If you have a two years old child, you might have noticed that your child is easily distressed, that s/he is crying more than usual and wants to be held and cuddled more. If perchance you have children 3 to 6 years old (basically preschool and nursery children) you will notice that they have returned to behaviors they have outgrown. Some examples are toileting accidents, bed-wetting, or being frightened about being separated from their parents and caregivers. They might even show some tantrums and have difficulty sleeping.
If you have older children 7-10 years you will notice that they feel sad, angry, or even afraid. It is entirely possible that their peers are sharing false information. It is up to the parents to correct those misconceptions. Older children tend to focus more on details of the situation and want to talk about it all the time or on the contrary not talk about it at all. They might even have trouble concentrating. Some preteens and teenagers will respond to worrying situations by being reckless. They might even reduce the time they spend on social media or talking to friends. It is very likely for them to get overwhelmed by their emotions and feel unable to talk about their emotions. I am sure you have noticed that these emotions sometimes even lead to increased arguing, even fighting with siblings, parents, caretakers, and other adults.
They might be troubled by their concerns about how the school closures and cancellation of exams are going to impact their studies, their future. Chances are children and young people with learning disabilities are likely to feel loss of control during the uncertain period of COVID-19 pandemic. They will need extra support and assurance by the parents of caregivers. They also need to know the situation may be an adapted version of the outbreak, depending on the level of understanding of the child.
Now that you know how to identify if your child is troubled, you would want to know how to handle the situation. Actually, parents can do quite a few things to help their children. First of all, parents need to know the facts and stay updated about the situation.
Be their guide
Like everyone else, children and young people also need to know basic, age-appropriate information about COVID-19, including its symptoms, complications, how it is transmitted and how to prevent transmission. For that, you as a parent need to stay informed about COVID-19 through reputable sources such as UNICEF and WHO and national health ministry advisories.
Beware of fake information/ myths that may circulate by word-of-mouth or online. Children need to understand why you are asking them to do certain precautionary things, like wearing masks, or coughing in your elbow, or even washing your hands frequently. I am sure most parents have already done that. Parents need to be prepared to spend some time with their children.
During this lockdown period, it’s important that you support and take care of your family’s mental health. For that there are lots of things you can do. Be there for them when your children want to discuss their feelings and concerns with you. A good way to start would be to support their decisions and answering their questions in an age-appropriate manner, visually through written words, pictures, symbol systems, or objects. Next supporting and encouraging them to express their emotions and letting them know they are not alone. Make sure that while listening to their feelings you take them seriously and not judge their emotions. It is possible for them to feel anxious about the big changes that have taken place at home. Explain that it is normal, that they may experience different reactions and that these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation and take time to comfort them.
Provide information in an honest, age-appropriate manner. While doing that take care to tailor your approach based on your child. Think about whether more information makes them more or less anxious. When your child asks a question, approach the subject simply and calmly. Kids take their cues from you. Ask your child what they know before you answer their questions, answer their questions and correct any misinformation. Always take time to remind them of what’s in their power—washing hands thoroughly and often, coughing and sneezing into their elbow, getting plenty of sleep, etc.
After more than 60 days of staying inside, they might be feeling frustrated at not being able to go out. Help them plan their day and prepare them for the possibility of staying at home for a longer period of time. Help them plan and come up with solutions. There are unlimited options. They can do some yoga along with meditation to over anxiety. Get them involved in a new hobby perhaps like gardening, caring for flower on your gamala. Introducing them to some sort of daily puja ritual and meditation also helps in relaxing and reducing anxiety. Older children can get into cooking for fun.
Teach them skills
At one point my sons wanted to learn how to sew, knit, and crochet. Then they managed to learn some by the time they went away to college. Please remember that there is no limit as to what who can learn. There is no gender discrimination among jobs to learn and do. Give them plenty of affection and reassure them that they are safe. While doing all this don’t forget to praise them for their smallest efforts to retain sanity at home like cleaning their room or rearranging the books wiping TV or setting dinner/lunch table and other such things that we tend to overlook. It is always a good idea to validate their feelings, while reassuring them: “I understand this can be scary. We’re taking steps to keep healthy, and we’re well prepared.” Give them clear examples of what they can do to help protect themselves and others from infection.
I think that if parents can do the above, they can definitely try to do the rest too. So, if possible, create opportunities for children to play and relax. Don’t forget to keep regular routines like eating time, snack time or even dinner time and sleeping schedules as much as possible, or you can even help create new ones in a new environment. Since most children are worried about the future, share information about what could happen in a reassuring way.
Usha Pokharel is an educationist and author of several children’s books