All COVID-19 statistics lead to the same conclusion: the young ones, our children, are at the lowest risk of getting ill or dying from the virus. That’s comforting. But the pandemic does pose a certain danger to them.
Over the course of just a few days, COVID-19 managed to radically change our lives, demanding that we continuously adapt on all fronts: financially, physically, socially, psychologically.
Two months ago, a little boy, near to tears, told his mom about the children in China who could not hug their mothers (even though his parents had not listened to the news within close proximity to him). Every day, when evening fell and the family gathered around to say what it was that they were grateful for that day, his main reason would be: “Thank God we don’t live in China!” One night, when he started to cough, although he was very sleepy, he put his elbow in front of his mouth and asked in fear: “Has the virus reached us, too?” Back then it hadn’t, but now it is close to us, and as Cornelius Williams, the Head of UNICEF’s Child Protection Division said, “In many ways, the disease is now reaching children and families far beyond those it directly infects”.
The closing down of schools, the distancing between friends, the restructuring of our schedules, the isolation between four walls, the frequent washing of hands, are all forcing children to quickly adapt to a new normal. The outpouring of news that comes hand in hand with parents’ panic, predisposes children to fear and anxiety.
Although not much is said on the topic, as it is not considered high priority at the moment, NGOs and institutions specialising in child protection have already advised with regards to children’s needs and the best ways to approach them during this period.
Haley Neidich, a mental health professional and practicing psychotherapist, thinks that parents should be aware of the problems children might be facing, even if they don’t talk about them. “Just because your child doesn’t bring it up to you, does not mean it’s not on their mind.”
In order to be able to help your children cope emotionally, you need to be honest about your own feelings. Are you scared? What scares you the most? Many times, fear is exacerbated based on the type of information you get or the lack of adequate information. First make sure you are properly informed, and then cultivate calmness.
Do not minimize their feelings, do not laugh if you see them worried, show them you understand.
Children are predisposed to fear and guilt. They might think that their mother or grandfather are dying, or they will feel responsible for their parents’ divorce. Children tend to overvalue the bits of information they have and give a different interpretation to the information they don’t understand. Try to first find out what your child does know about COVID-19 and then give them age appropriate information. Do not be harsh in you approach, but sensitive. Do not minimise their feelings, do not laugh if you see them worried, show them you understand. It is our responsibility, as parents, to help them express themselves and to offer them a safe environment to do so. Play more and let them unwind.
Author Lawrence J. Cohen builds on the positive role of play between parents and children. These are moments of bonding, of discovery, of relief, of healing. You can even write in a journal about this period and see what is important to your child. Come up with stories and see where their imagination takes them. Pay attention to what they signal. In one family, when the little girl fell and hurt herself, the older brother consoled her by saying: “At least you don’t have coronavirus.” Is your child praying for those infected by the virus? It may be a sign of empathy, but it might also be a sign of fear.
Apart from the technical information, try to also sometimes tell them positive stories about this situation—stories about people who help, about the heroic doctors, about the scientists and the volunteers who are helping the elderly. It’s comforting to know that the entire community that you are part of is acting for your good. But don’t turn this into the main topic of the day so as to not put pressure on them or stress them unduly. Let life draw up a new kind of normality.
Children feel the need to belong to someone, to be part of a community. It’s not just children who do, but we as adults feel this need too. We like to know that we have a home where we can find safety, care, understanding and joy. The family is the environment in which the little ones define their personalities. It is where they build their identity. It is where values are shaped. It is where they learn about limits. It is where they feel they belong to someone, that they are not alone.
Turn this time of crisis spent at home into a beacon of relational safety for your child. They may not be able to visit their grandparents or friends, and they may find this painful and frustrating, but they may talk to them on the phone or via video chat. Keep in touch with those from whom they have to keep their distance and explain to them the difference between social distancing and isolation. Help them fully enjoy the beauty and joy of having a family. Themed evenings are a sure and refreshing source of fun. You could even turn to your childhood games and you will discover that they have stood the test of time.
Clinical psychologist Dr. David Anderson recommends several ways of going back to the 80’s, before screens were present everywhere. Playing hopscotch, hide-and-seek in the dark, making airplanes or playing tic-tac-toe keeps its charm throughout the years. Make shadow puppets with your hands or turn your living room into a huge tent. It will be the perfect place to share favourite stories from your own childhood in the light of a flashlight. Children are mesmerised by their parents’ childhood stories and they will carry the lessons they learn from them over time. Cook some simple recipes together or come up with your own. Any kind of experiment helps children enjoy the wonder there is in the world, to believe in the joys that lie beyond their imagination, to persevere in finding solutions. Exercising or jumping rope will set their muscles in motion and bring on the good cheer. Develop a passion, such as painting, or just simply sing together.
Set up a weekly family meeting. Regularity brings children stability. This is a particularly special occasion that must be planned in advance. During the meeting, talk about your family’s mission and values. If you have not yet set them, you can discover them now. Let your children voice their opinions. Find ways to apply them during this period so that they are truly meaningful. A picnic on the carpet and a small mutual appreciation game can bring the meeting to a happy end.
Consistency and organisation are two elements that can help calm things down during a stressful situation. Children, especially those who are young or anxious, find it helpful to know what is going to happen and when.
The need to keep things under control
Time spent together indoors, at home, can become a source of frustration to any family member. The need to keep things under control becomes even more obvious at critical times, in crisis. That is why it is important that a child’s private space and time be treated with respect during this time period.
Equally, setting up a daily routine will help reduce the chaos and the uncertainty. Consistency and organisation are two elements that can help calm things down during a stressful situation. Children, especially those who are young or anxious, find it helpful to know what is going to happen and when. Plan daily activities and carry through with them. The joy of their own accomplishments will help the child feel like they are somewhat in control and that they are not helpless.
Talk to your child about the future and make plans with them. Dreams offer hope and a way for them to detach from their present circumstances.
Personal hygiene rules, healthy eating habits, and going to bed early can all be transformed from merely chores they must do to heroic ways to fight the virus. In this way the child can feel like they are a superhero in this fight. If they catch onto this game and you don’t think it’s too much, you can even make drawings for the neighbours with your child.
Practice gratitude daily. In the morning or in the evening you can find at least one reason to be thankful that day. Think of something practical so that it is relevant. Wait until every member of your family has expressed their message in their own way. Cultivating a spirit of thankfulness helps to establish a good mood and keeps one focused on positive things.
Practice praying in the evening together. It is comforting to know that beyond your own limits, or the limits of the strong people beside you, there is Someone who is in control of every situation. This feeling will bring a peaceful sleep and help temper down the feelings of fear that settle in when evening comes, especially for those children who are not sleeping next to their parents.
Nothing is more comforting to parents than having a home in which their children feel good. A restless, anxious child becomes a source of stress and unease for parents, and that is the last thing needed during this already stressful period. The main goal in adapting to the current context of being isolated at home with our children is to ensure that they can not only handle the situation but thrive in it.
Simona Condrachi is an Education undergraduate at Montemorelos University (Mexico).