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Mindful of Mental Health
As the pandemic evolves and we do our best to reduce infection levels in our communities, let’s keep in mind the mental health of our children and teens. Research shows that, compared to adults, children are more vulnerable to the impact of traumatic events and due to the current situation, some children are at risk of developing trauma-related stress, anxiety and depression or other emotional disturbances. Children who already battle with these issues are at an even higher risk.
All of the structures that keep children mentally healthy by providing a sense of predictability and security are under threat. Kids are afraid of themselves or their loved ones getting sick; schools are shut or partially shut and out-of-home activities such as sporting events or get-togethers with friends are cancelled. Meeting, and making new friends is much harder. Without effort, certain friendships will die. Home schooling is the new normal and educational milestones are postponed. Sunday lunch at Granny’s is not happening. This is all destabilising and bewildering.
Children, being very attuned to stress in the adults around them, are on high alert. Parents have to explain the pandemic and its very confusing rules to their children, handle their fear and anxiety and process family grief over lost loved ones. As if that is not enough, they might find themselves jobless or working from home, as well as continuously needing to monitor their children’s wellbeing and day to day education. This all spills over into the general home environment.
As parents and teachers, we have to find ways to shepherd our children through this uncertain terrain, as well as remaining on track ourselves. Everyday life needs to be reorganized in order to adapt.
One way of moving forward is to look at the opportunities provided by the pandemic. Some external stressors may thankfully disappear such as bullying at school or having kids in an education system that is too fast paced. With less external activity, there is more time for rest and relaxation and togetherness in family life. Smaller friendship circles can strengthen ties. Most importantly, children build resilience in the face of challenges which will aid them in their future lives.
Here are some pointers to help keep kids mentally strong at this time –
- Know that each child will react differently to the pandemic. Some may become clingy and others may suddenly struggle with the basics such as sleeping, eating and maintaining hygiene. A combination of empathy and setting of clear limits and expectations is suggested.
- Have at least one adult caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to buffer them from the effects of the pandemic.
- Keep them from being isolated by nurturing the family or small social circles, and extended friends and family by letter-writing or virtual connections.
- Provide information that is relevant and age appropriate.
- Limit exposure to sensationalist media or fake news.
- Allow children to ask questions and air their fears and concerns and provide reassurance.
- Keep simple routines going. Expect children (where age appropriate) and adolescents to keep their rooms tidy, make their beds, get up each morning, get dressed and keep clean.
- Set aside specific times for school-learning. Enlist whatever help or resources may be provided by your children’s school.
- Set aside a space dedicated to learning, if possible.
- Teach children ways to self-soothe such as deep breathing, exercise and meditation.
- Ensure that there are many activities available tailored to the age of the children to keep them busy - this could be outdoor play, reading interactively, looking through old photos, constructing a fort or pitching a tent, helping with cooking and housework to give parents a chance to get on with work, skateboarding, roller-blading, pogo-stick jumping, creative activities such as art, crafts or scrap-booking, listening to audio books, playing board games, watching and discussing movies together…
- Develop children’s personal sense of agency. For example, explain how they can contribute to the safety of themselves and others by frequently washing their hands or sanitising and wearing masks in public. They can help to prepare nutritious food, volunteer in the community or share what they have with needier children.
- Encourage regular conversation in the home about various topics, not just pandemic-related. This involves asking open-ended questions such as “tell me about the book you are reading…” rather than “how much did you read today?” Open up about yourself too so that the conversation is two-sided. You will find some conversation starters here to get you going: Tips for inspiring conversation with your kids.
- Help yourself and other caregivers to remain strong by providing rest and restorative activities.
- Seek professional help sooner rather than later if you or your children are showing signs of trauma. This includes patterns of excessive worrying, nightmares, increased aggression or self-harm. Therapy provided online or by telephone is shown to be extremely effective when face-to-face options are not available.
Bartlett, J., Bartlett, D., Griffin, J., & Thomson, D. (2020). Resources for Supporting Children’s Emotional Well-being during the COVID-19 Pandemic - Child Trends. Retrieved 1 February 2021.
Fegert, J., Vitiello, B., Plener, P., & Clemens, V. (2020). Challenges and burden of the Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic for child and adolescent mental health: a narrative review to highlight clinical and research needs in the acute phase and the long return to normality. Child And Adolescent Psychiatry And Mental Health, 14(1).
Fetters, A. (2020). How Parents Can Keep Kids Busy (and Learning) in Quarantine. The Atlantic. Retrieved 1 February 2021.
Lyons, R. (2018). Tips for Inspiring Conversation with Your Kids. KC Parent Magazine. Retrieved 1 February 2021.
Picture: Anthony Tran on Unsplash