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Five-year-old KD refuses to let his mother out of sight. He fears she might never come back. Even if she goes to the kitchen, he screams and shouts, wanting to cling to her every moment of the day. “There is a palpable fear of losing people we love, especially with news of people going away to hospitals and not coming back," says Delhi-based Amit Sen, a child psychiatrist and co-founder, Children First, a child and adolescent mental health service, who has been counselling KD and his parents.

Covid-19 has disrupted children’s lives, with the physical and social isolation affecting most things they hold dear—play time, outings, school routine. The effects of this are showing up in different ways, particularly in the 4-10 age group. “They are still in the early stages of intellectual and language development. Hence, they are unable to understand why the parents are wearing a mask, why is handwashing so important," says K. John Vijay Sagar, professor and head of department of child and adolescent psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans), Bengaluru.

The stress is leading to changes in sleeping and eating patterns, clinginess, wariness of strangers, symptoms that are being observed across the world.

“There are two stark changes that one is seeing, with kids swinging from one to the other: either they respond emotionally with fear or exhibit extremes of behaviour difficulties," says Dr Sen. He cites the example of an eight-year-old with a learning disability. In the early days of the lockdown, she was thrilled that schools were closed, parents were working from home and she could watch TV or do the activities she liked. But as the routine disintegrated, she started throwing tantrums, especially when the parents tried to restore some discipline to their lives.

Ahmedabad-based Sujata Dehury has two boys, aged 4 and 10. Both have reacted differently. “I thought of taking them out for a walk but my husband suggested it was better to be cautious and to stay home. My elder son, who was mentally prepared for an outing, broke down," says the former media professional. One day, while he was playing in the balcony on the first floor, the ball fell to the ground floor. Dehury asked him to get it but he just couldn’t bring himself to. The silence there made him uncomfortable. “He no longer wants a vacation but wants to feel and smell the earth in school," she says. “My younger son, on the other hand, has not even started going to school. He doesn’t know what friendship is, so his reaction is different."

Counsellors say a lot of the stress children are going through is a result of the parents’ own anxieties and fears. Children tend to soak in feelings like a sponge. “Some of the things children are feeling are akin to those experienced in a trauma-like situation like earthquakes, floods and tsunamis. The difference is that this is not a one-off thing in which we have to deal with the aftermath. This is an ongoing event," says Dr Sen.

When the unpredictability and the helplessness of having no agency is affecting adults so much, how can it not have an impact on children? “At this age (4-10), they are developing trust and belief that no matter what happens, we will be looked after by parents and other responsible adults. But the prevailing uncertainty is shaking their faith in the system," says Dr Sen. In some cases, children are sleeping with a bottle of sanitizer, to be able to tackle germs even during a nap. Some others create make-believe hospitals, with no beds available, during playtime. “Some of the younger kids might be naturally of an anxious temperament," says Dr Vijay Sagar. Constant news feeds and WhatsApp updates on parents’ phones might trigger this anxiety and manifest in them not wanting any strangers around or inside the house.

Parents, then, have to become the strongest support system, emerging as an emotional scaffolding. The adults need to adopt a reassuring stance, that they are in control of the situation and will be there for the children, come what may. This can help prevent the effects of trauma. “If not, then they may or may not show immediate effects of trauma but later, when these kids grow up, they might undergo depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and trust issues. They might be constantly vigilant and uptight or might put themselves in vulnerable situations," says Dr Sen.

Schools also need to step up. Instead of focusing on the curriculum or piling the child with worksheets, they must create time for conversation—circle times, which allow a child to share with friends and teachers. Delhi-based Chetali Chhabra, a development professional, has seen the impact of clear communication by the school on her four-and-a-half-year-old son. “They explained about the infection clearly, the impact of handwashing and the need to sanitize, even before the lockdown. Once schools shut, I thought of having a conversation with him about the safety measures but he already had all the information from school. However, over the past few months, we too have been constantly having a dialogue with him and that acts as a coping mechanism," she says. Dehury too has opted for the affirmative dialogue route. So when they celebrated her elder son’s birthday in May without a fancy cake, party or new clothes, he didn’t fuss. He took it in his stride.

“Once this happens, if a scaffolding is created, a child feels cocooned in warmth, with the reassurance that those who matter have rallied around me," says Dr Sen.

Creative pursuits help too. Dehury’s elder son, for instance, is a YouTuber and likes to paint—and that has infused the days with some positivity. Parents could also try reading out the stories that they used to when the child was younger, or share anecdotes from that time. “The fact that everyone wanted to cuddle them and they were much loved as a baby makes children feel secure," says Dr Sen.

Using metaphors, myths, legends and folk tales to talk about social distancing, job loss and the need for isolation may be more helpful than bare-bones information. Be liberal with hugs and physical contact, says Nandini Mundkur, senior consultant (child development specialist and paediatrician), Motherhood Hospitals, Bengaluru. “Handholding won’t help if you are simultaneously yelling at the child. One needs a lot of social emotional building learning, which is seriously lacking in India. We don’t allow the child to express anything. We just tell him or her this is how you must feel. Take this time to play, make music, engage in art therapy. There is no better coping mechanism than spending time together," she says.

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