COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of unexpected changes in our lives and thrown our emotions in turmoil. As adults we may be able to figure out how to cope with the anxiety and stress caused by these changes, but how do we help our children? I spoke to a paediatrician, a school founder, and a counseling psychologist to get some answers. The strategies they recommend include acknowledging their feelings, listening without judgment, bonding and having fun as a family, and building their resilience.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, my 6-year-old had a pretty bustling social life. She went to school for 5 hours – time she totally loved. We went to the park daily for nearly 2 hours and longer on holidays. She attended birthday parties and playdates every week. Hugged her friends and ran holding hands. Giggled with delight on seeing her favourite cat Gems and erupted into squeals while swinging with a friend. Oh, what a wonderful life that was!
A sharp contrast to now, when she cannot touch or hug or be on the same swing as another kid. All contact and touch have disappeared from her life barring us i.e. her parents. The pandemic has taken away some of her carefree spirits and replaced them with loneliness, fear, and anxiety. So there are more tantrums and melt-downs and standoffs. The usually sunshine happy kid has more mood swings and upset moments now that don’t end as quickly even with a huggy monster or a tickle monster’s best efforts. I know I’m not alone in this.
So, how do we as parents help our kids manage their emotions and feelings?
I spoke to 3 experts to get some answers.
Dr. Ramesh Iyer is a Mumbai-based child and newborn specialist with over 30 years of experience.
Geeta Harisinganey is the co-founder of Sweven Montessori School. She is an engineer who loves to break down complex problems to the level of children and she currently teaches children from pre-k to twelfth grade.
Madhura Patwardhan is a counseling psychologist at Trijog, mental health care and holistic wellness organization in Mumbai. She has been working in the field of mental wellness for 7 years, helping children and young adults.
What kind of behavioral changes have we seen in the children?
Dr. Iyer says the pandemic has brought about 3 kinds of behavioral changes in children. He says “One was where they were a little angry and irritable, very fretful and frustrated at not being able to do basic things, like go out and play, meet up with their friends. Their fuse was very low; they would get angry at the drop of a hat. And then there is this second type which had a lot of anxiety, insomnia, bad dreams and the third one was the ones who would cling to their parents. The really scared types who didn’t even want to go out and meet people. They would prefer to stay at home. They lost interest in doing anything which formerly they considered very pleasurable, even things like going out and going for a walk, cycling, playing games. Somehow these children just didn’t want to do any of these.”
Ms. Madhura has counseled and spoken to a lot of children during the pandemic. She says after the novelty of staying at home and having parents around 24/7 wore off it’s been difficult for the children to adjust. The change in routine, zero socializing and little physical activity has led to a rise in frustration and aggression.
“So there is a lot of frustration that comes down, a lot of irritability because they don’t know how to engage themselves. No one had seen this kind of change coming, so nobody was prepared for it. And the environment that they have constantly been in, so much negativity around, a lot of anxiety, uncertainty, a lot of insecurities, all this has an impact on their mental health somewhere. Some may have experienced the loss of their loved ones or their families may have seen a financial crisis. So all of this has left children very confused about what is happening.”
Geeta Harisingnay has a different view. She says while children have missed the social structure that a school provides it has also brought on a lot of positive changes. It has injected the children into adulthood and made it a fairground, where the adults are clueless but the children have helped. “I mean, none of us knew how to deal with it, and children being children, are driven by order. Once you tell them what it is about, what the problem is, and what actions need to be taken to actually help, they have extended help. They have actually understood and their resilience has helped them cope. It has actually helped the adults also, because if they weren’t able to cope, we would’ve been in such a difficult spot with all of them living at home, not getting to socialize, not getting to go out there. Not meet their friends. All of a sudden the schools are closed, they haven’t seen the world outside but they haven’t complained. That’s the biggest thing. So I find them way more contributing, I find them way more helpful. I just feel that we as adults have a lot to take away from them.”
With more than a year into the pandemic, how do you think parents and children
are coping up now? What’s their mental health like?
Dr. Iyer says some children have matured rather fast and the environment at home has been a major contributor to that. The children have accepted the changes and learned to live with them.
So some children, the mature ones have accepted and the parents have helped them understand that this is a reality for now, but it’s only a temporary phase. I’m sure there will be better days and you will be able to go out. Parents, as you said, have also understood the situation better now. They realize that yes we can be happy within the four walls of our home and it all depends on how we involve the children, how the mood is at home, and that directly affects our behavior and their behavior and their coping mechanisms. So I would say parents are seeing it a little differently now and are able to handle the small problems.
Geeta says that a child’s mental health is an outcome of interaction and it is more or less driven by adults in the house. She says unless there are genuine health concerns or chemical imbalances it is a solvable problem by the adults in the house.
“The adult needs to ensure that their mental health is comfortable. They are at ease, they’re able to make time for the children. It is very very important to do that! I mean, if we were to create a practice in our day, where we take the initial 15 minutes of a day and start the day with a promise and end the day with gratitude. I think all of us can find peace with whatever is happening around us. And mental health with the children that we are seeing is when adults are very, very busy. When adults are busy, they’re running from pillar to post, they have the house to take care of, they have their work to take care of and the maids are not here. There is no help involved over there. Sometimes there is quarantining and you have to ensure that food is on the table and then the demands of the children. Now, this is a reality and we have known it for a very long time, it’s been there for a year. And if we are going to tell ourselves and we haven’t put our mind around this and not wrapped our thoughts around it and are not able to organize our life, then yes mental health is absolutely a concern, and it exists in a lot of households. But as we see it from a school perspective, we feel the solutions are very simple. Teachers need to help prioritize our life, we need to take a step back and try to understand what is really important to be done in the day and set aside some time for the children. When consistency gets applied with children and they know the order – that you are going to talk to them at this part of the day, then they are not going to bother you. But you have to come through. They need to believe in you and trust in you.”
So how can we help our children deal with their anxiety, fears, and strain?
All the experts absolutely agree that the key factor in this is the parent. They play the main role in setting the mood and emotions at home. Connecting, communicating, and listening to their children needs to be at the top of their toolkit.
Ms. Madhura believes that before helping the children parents need to understand their own emotions first. It has been a difficult year for everyone and adults are still learning how to balance family and work life.
So what we really need to do is to acknowledge and accept the way we are feeling right now, and that is what children are going to learn by imitating their parents. One needs to pause and reflect on how they are feeling and say it to yourself. Give a name to your feelings.
“It is also very important to identify how you are feeling right now. So one can say that I am feeling anxious and it is okay to feel so. All emotions are valid. It is healthier to give it an outlet other than suppressing it, and that is what exactly parents need to do with their children as well, without really getting frustrated about their overt actions, which is ultimately a manifestation of their frustration. It is not that they’re doing it deliberately or they’re doing it on purpose. That is how they feel that they can cope.“
Dr. Iyer recommends that parents spend quality time and engage with the children, play games, do activities together and show a lot of physical affection.
“So just being around is not enough. You need to actually spend time with your child and by that, I mean quality time – play games with them, listen to them. The most important thing is first, listen. If you allow a child to talk, she will talk forever and she will confide in the mother or the father and tell them everything. All her fears, all her anxieties, just listen to them, don’t be judgmental. Even if you know that they are doing the stupidest of things. Remember that their fears are real and understand that this is a child. This is the mind of a six-year-old, a five-year-old who’s actually crying out for help. So, don’t treat them like adults. Never criticize, even when they’re saying something or doing something wrong. Correct them in a very nice way and encourage them to do their activities. And a lot of children actually do very well with encouraging parents. Like it’s not enough, if you tell a child don’t eat junk, don’t watch TV, go down, do cycling, go do jogging but he finds the parents doing that all day. So unless you take the child down and go for a jog or go for a ride on the bicycle, the child will not be motivated to do all those things. You have to eat healthily, so ensure that you’re eating healthy, avoid asking for junk food, or calling in for junk food, and automatically the child will listen. Show a lot of affection, you know, physically, hold the child, cuddle the child, I mean, who doesn’t like a hug, even at this age we all love to be hugged. Don’t we? So both emotionally and physically be there for them all the time. Solve their problems, will help them in a big way especially the older children and teenagers.”
“The best thing for the parents to do is draw up the schedule, a timetable for each person of the family for a week or even for a day. Stick to that but don’t be rigid about it. Yes, rules are rules but it’s okay. There are cheat days in our diet and in our discipline so we can have these things but don’t be very rigid but involve children in the chores. In fact, you’ll find it easier, you know, when there were no service providers, no maids and we had to do everything on our own. Families coped much better when they involved children in doing small tasks. And children love doing those tasks for their parents, playing board games together, talk about positive things. You know, even though the whole world around you is in the midst of a pandemic and there are so many bad things happening, so many sad stories all over, within the four confines of your house you can be positive. Okay, so in fact, in the classes they were having yoga, pranayama, they were having Surya namaskars. So, all these things also improve the physical activity of the child. Eat right, exercise, and talk to them a lot and put their fears at rest. That is most important. Encouraging the children is also very important.“
Geeta firmly believes that children must be engaged in the process of finding a solution.
“I think the first step that we can take is to allow them the freedom to decide what they want to do. Actually, define the problem. Admit that there is a problem that we cannot go out, admit that there is Corona out there and going out is going to not only impact our health but also the health of others, so we have a responsibility towards that. But the problem is that I don’t get to meet my friends. So what is it that I really should do? Now, if we leave this control to the children, or throw the ball in their court I think they’ll have way more answers. I was just speaking to a few children last week only and they told me, you know, what we should do is an online party together. I think I’ll come dressed up and we’re going to put on music and we are going to dance. It’s a brilliant idea!“
“I mean, you can, of course, set some rules around it. But if you give them the freedom and they are not reliant on you, probably will be able to solve a lot more problems for themselves. I think we’ll have to explore a lot more ways over there. My happiness cannot be sorted by my parent, my mother, or my teacher. Happiness for me has to be sorted by me. The action is in my hand. And if you are not going to give them that liberty, how are they going to explore that action? So I just believe, yes, I agree there are problems but I think you are going to have to put on some pink glasses and start looking at the world in a different way. And you’ll probably have to serve or look at it in a way that we can try to resolve and try to live with it.”
Geeta also adds that the adults have to be more responsible and not feed their fears and anxieties into the child. Children aren’t afraid of outcomes because they don’t always understand the consequence of an action. She says we must allow the children to be their own solution providers. Talking and actually hearing them is the key.
“Let us talk. This is important. Let’s talk about all the difficult topics. Actually, let’s talk about life. Let’s talk about birth. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about illness. Let’s talk about the disease. Let’s talk about consequences. Let’s talk about causes. Let’s talk about everything. See, the point is, the day we start talking the children receive it. They probably will have lots and lots of questions and probably it’s going to get very difficult for all of us because you have to answer them. But I think a matter-of-fact conversation about what the reality is, I don’t think it is going to be deteriorating. I just think it is going to be helpful. What it means is, of course, that is not going to take away fear, probably it’s going to grow it. You know, because we are going to talk, we’re going to talk about the fact that, you know, It is possible to lose a parent. It is absolutely a possibility in life. I mean, there are examples out there that have happened, right? But at the same time, let’s talk about how much we care. Let’s talk about how much we are going to take care of ourselves because we love them. Let’s talk that how much we would like them to take care of themselves because we would want to share this life with them and we want to spend more time with them because we just are happy being together. Allow them to take care of us allow them and listen to their concerns. I have known parents or I’ve seen adults, where a child says please put on your mask. I mean, don’t go out that way because, you know, there is Corona, and I just see a wave of a hand and an adult saying I know it all. No, stop for a minute. Say thank you! Thank you for reminding me. I’m grateful, I’m going to care for myself, so I am going to put on the mask, and I’m going out for a walk. Come back and give your child a hug that we are back together. Let’s talk and appreciate every moment that we are spending together. Let’s talk in reality. There are people who are suffering and every day. As I said, let’s take those 10 minutes in the night before we sleep. When we express gratitude by saying we are happy and we are together, that’s the only way I think we can sort this”
How can parents differentiate between mood swings and irritation due to growth spurts and behavioral change caused by circumstances around us?
Dr. Iyer says a growth spurt will last a week or 10 days but anything longer than that is a red flag and needs looking into. Parents should definitely reach out for help to counselors, psychologists, doctors and mental health professionals.
“Children are generally, very happy, very in the moment even if some incident has happened let us say at school, they move on much faster. They forget, forgive and move on. So, they don’t carry baggage. And I think parents realize that when this is persisting, beyond a week, or maybe 10 days, then this needs to be looked into. This is clearly not just a momentary change in behavior, but regressive behavior, like bedwetting and thumb-sucking that the child never did before. So you can’t attribute it just to change and there has to be some positive reinforcement that has to be given. So if you feel that you can’t handle it at your level then parents need to seek help from the counselor or the doctor and there should be no stigma about seeking help from a mental health professional at all.”
“So red flags I would say is the child loses interest in everything, the child who loved to do all these things. Why would he lose interest? And it has to be something more serious, right? Or regressive behavior, temper tantrums, aggression, aggressive behavior, these things in the child will tell the parents the difference between an extension of normal and something up.”
Ms Madhura agrees. “When it is just a developmental phase, after a point, the child will overcome it as the child learns about more skills and learns to regulate himself or herself with more exposure, the child will overcome that phase ultimately. But if it is a little more persistent in nature you will see that happening in all different kinds of settings. It won’t be only limited to a particular situation, you will see that happening throughout.”
So how do you bring a child back from that phase? How does one reconnect?
To bring a child out of that phase Ms. Madhura recommends entering the child’s world. She recommends that we do not rush into talking to the child about what is happening since they are still processing it but be patient and listen without being judgmental.
“You need to enter into the child’s world to understand how exactly the child is feeling and allowing the child that space rather than forcing the child to come out. Allow the child to feel whatever they are feeling. All emotions and feelings are valid. It is okay to feel every emotion and we should allow the child to be in that space. But it’s important to help the child understand that you as a parent are there with the child whenever the child requires. Giving that space itself and giving that unconditional love and being non-judgmental about how the child is really feeling, itself helps you to connect with the child. We do not need to rush into the process of talking to the child about what is happening. Because most probably the child himself or herself is not in the state to understand what has happened. It has to be a very gradual process. And again giving the child something to engage in to distract themselves also helps. If you know that a particular activity will help the child to feel calm, something that the child enjoys, do that activity with the child. Don’t just give it to the child, you yourself engage with the child in doing that and show the child how interesting that could be.“
Ms. Madhura also adds that it’s important to have fun with the children. We are all caught in a trap of giving instructions, we don’t pause and communicate. She recommended 3 strategies to bring back the connection:
3 Strategies to Re-establish a Connection with Your Child.
To have fun, just for the sake of having fun. There should be no purpose, objective, or learning, we do something purely for the child’s pleasure and fun. This is not only for the child but also for the adult to carry on.
Develop some life skills
Children should be involved in daily chores and be given age-appropriate responsibilities.
Know more about life skills and why should parents consider developing them in their children at an early age.
She believes whatever helps one build resilience is another that will help in lockdown and the time to come.
No one can say with certainty what the long-term effects of this pandemic on kids are. We may perhaps know more in 2-3 years’ time. The schedules have gone awry, food habits have changed. They are more dependent on-screen and gadgets, and physical activity has drastically reduced. Social activity and peer interaction are almost zero, and all of this has brought behavioral changes in children.
While the principles of parenting have not changed, we have to allow ourselves and our children a little more grace. This is a difficult time for all of us and we are learning more about ourselves each day. Allowing ourselves to move on, dusting ourselves off when we make mistakes, and reminding ourselves that we can do better the next time, is the advice I give myself every night.