#childsafety | The kids need a break

Mental health experts on how parents can help their children cope with stress and anxiety during this time


The full toll of the pandemic on our collective physical, mental and economic health may take years to assess, but that it would be devastating, is fairly certain. As we grapple with it, we might be overlooking those most vulnerable to it — children.
Take Rajesh Agarwal (name changed on request), an intelligent outgoing 11-year-old, for instance. He was recently brought in for consultation by his parents with complaints of reduced appetite and sleep, crying spells, refusal to attend online school or extracurricular activities, bursts of anger and bedwetting. An evaluation revealed that the Andheri resident was terrified of contracting Covid. He was also suffering from anxiety and was paranoid about his father’s wellbeing, who’s an essential worker. He fears his father would get infected on the job and die, as it happened with an acquaintance.

“When it comes to something like this pandemic, the impact can never be only physiological. It goes way deeper into the psyche, and if not addressed in time, will lead to toxic stress and trauma,” says Meghna Yadav, developmental psychologist and head of training and development at KLAY Preschool and Daycare. “Kids are more susceptible as they are still trying to figure out the world around them. Children across the globe are already showing symptoms of stress and trauma due to the pandemic.”



The young ones are also witnessing their parents’ anxiety, points out Dr Aparna Ramakrishnan, consultant, psychiatry, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital. “Some have witnessed close family members get infected and even die from Covid. Such traumatic events can produce negative emotional responses in children,” she says.


What are the signs?

While symptoms vary according to age, developmental stage, social support systems and guidance, most children under stress seek more attachment and become more demanding of their parents.

“Younger children may exhibit excessive crying, temper tantrums, irritable behaviour. They can even regress to habits they had outgrown such as bedwetting, nail-biting and clinging,” says Ramakrishnan. Some may become hyperactive or show a decrease in their usual activity levels, sleep or appetite. Also look out for edgy behaviour, forgetfulness, avoiding routine activities or multiple unexplained aches.

“Teenagers may be sad, withdrawn and irritable. They may also exhibit use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, excessive immersion in social media and risk-taking behaviours.”

Patience is all it takes


Trauma is mostly rooted in unfounded fears and half-accurate information, points out Yadav. She recommends the ‘three Rs’ to maintain emotional stability of the young ones in crisis.

Reassure: Provide age-appropriate information to children, but at the same time, reassure them about their safety. “Keep expressing through different ways that you are there for them,” says Yadav.

Routine: Routine gives predictability that leads to a sense of control. Children might have a different routine now, but devising one with time slots — such as activity, screen, family board game and cooking time — helps reduce anxiety.

Regulate: Parents need to regulate their own emotions to teach children self-efficacy in tough times. “They keenly observe and absorb the way adults respond to changing situations. So, parents need to stay strong and calm in turmoil,” says Yadav.

Going back to school


Returning to school after such prolonged confinement at home might be exciting but also a stressful experience for kids. So, it’s vital to start conversations around it well before the actual day of joining. “Listen to their concerns and reassure them about their safety. Instruct them about precautions and safe practises in a graded manner,” says Ramakrishnan. For instance, make them wears masks for 30 minutes every day, followed by 10 minutes of unmasking. Gradually increase the duration to cover the school day. If the child is apprehensive about going back, make a list of all their concerns and help them deal with the fears in a calm, supportive yet firm manner. “And don’t put academic pressure on the child. Let them take some time to get resettled in the new environment,” adds Ramakrishnan.

PARENTS, BE AWARE


• Answer questions and share facts about Covid-19 in a way that your child or teen can easily understand

• Reassure them about their safety and their friends

• Limit exposure to related news, including on social media. However, address rumors and fake news

• Let children know it is okay to feel upset. Give them a safe, judgment-free space to talk. Share how you deal with your own stress, so they learn to cope with you

• Create a schedule for learning as well as fun activities

• Don’t give constant advice. Allow your child to guide you at times

• Don’t compare your children or yourselves to anyone else. We are all coping in the best way we can.


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