‘When can I go out to play?’: The pandemic is affecting kids and parents are in a fix

Most of the difficulties children face arise out of lack of effective communication, experts say.
Child behaviour during lockdown
Child behaviour during lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed everyone, including children, to stay indoors for days together. While many children have adjusted to the new normal, even enjoying the unexpected break from school and catching their favourite movies online, for a few, the uncertainty and anxiety of the adult world could be influencing their moods. 

Aarti C Rajaratnam, a psychologist specialising in child and adolescent mental health, says that in the last few weeks, she has seen quite a few children – from young ones to teens – report an increase in anxiety, breakdowns and other behavioural changes to indicate distress.

“In young children, physiological signs like change in sleep and eating habits are telling,” Aarti says.

Vandhana, a clinical psychologist, explains that the pandemic and lockdown have thrown normal lives and routines out of gear, and like everyone else, some children are also going through adjustment difficulties.

“For example, a child who is very talkative could become quiet, or vice versa. Further, behaviours like biting and excessive crying can also signal a need for attention," she says.

Obsessive behaviours like repeatedly washing hands, regressive behaviours like bedwetting, and frequent behavioural meltdowns which appear to be tantrums could also be symptoms of stress and/or anxiety among kids.

However, Vandhana warns that not all behavioural changes are a symptom of mental health issues.

“It could be a temporary change because of the transitional and stressful time. The parents should also check if it is a sudden onset or aggravation of existing behaviours. If it is the latter, the underlying issue needs to be addressed. Only if these behaviours don’t settle down should parents seek professional intervention.”

Bengaluru-based Smitha* has noticed some changes in her four-year-old daughter Ritu’s* behaviour in the last few weeks. She feels that the child throws more tantrums than usual and has been asking when she can go out and play. When the two of them stepped out to visit Smitha's mother who lives nearby, Ritu was unusually silent.

“She is generally quite chatty and loud, but this time, she was nervous and silent. When I asked her why, she said she didn’t want to ‘get corona’, so she didn’t open her mouth outside,” the Bengaluru-based freelance writer tells TNM.

Three-year-old Aaradhya* from Chennai keeps asking her parents to take her outside. But with two neighbours testing positive for COVID-19, her parents say that they have no choice but to keep her at home all day. According to her parents, Aaradhya has been crying a lot more than usual.

Most of the difficulties children face arise out of lack of effective communication, experts say. Children are quite perceptive, and it would be naïve to think that just because they are young, they do not have thoughts, fears and questions about COVID-19. Parents may also find themselves at a loss because of their own anxieties and may not know how to explain a pandemic to a child.

Hooked to gadgets

A few days ago, seven-year-old Advik’s father was alarmed when he noticed a bite mark on the child’s arm. After much questioning, Advik revealed that he had bitten himself out of irritation.

Not too long ago, Advik’s day would consist of skating classes, going around the city with his mom and play time. However, since the lockdown, Advik typically wakes up at 10 am and spends most of the day watching TV, cartoons, or online content. 

“Whenever I leave him unattended, I can see him sit and think. On some days, he just blankly stares into space for minutes together. He says he was thinking about what he is craving for dinner, but I can see that he is missing the outside world,” says Aruna*, Advik’s mother.

Like Advik, eight-year-old Vishwa* remains glued to his parents’ mobile phones or television through the day since his parents don't allow him to play with his friends. “No amount of scolding has worked. He has started taking the phone and locking his room. We tried to explain to him that he can play with his grandfather, but to no avail,” Vishwa’s mother says.

Aarti says many children these days are already at a disadvantage because gadget and screen exposure has been high for them since the beginning.

“Children are put in a difficult spot because if they were told earlier that gadget addiction is bad, now that is all many parents are providing them,” Aarti says. “Apart from online videos, instructional learning or games, many kids have not picked up other skills or know how to play. They have not been allowed boredom – which is important to regulate emotions – because many caregivers have kept the child entertained all the time, sending them to multiple classes etc. So, this generation of kids has neither had so much free time, nor the time to deal with their emotions and thoughts that they suddenly do now. It can get quite overwhelming,” Aarti says.

Difficult conversations

Talking to children about the coronavirus can be difficult but it's important, say experts. They may come back with repetitive questions or may not grasp what the parent is trying to say entirely.

“Very young children may not have a clear understanding of death. And if they are hearing frequently now that people are dying, it can be very scary,” Aarti points out.

Experts suggest that parents be truthful, and do not tell kids things like coronavirus will not affect them and their loved ones because ‘they are strong’ or ‘god is protecting them’.

“Instead, you could tell your child that if we take these precautions, we should be okay. It is not a lie, and is an added incentive for the child to follow protective protocols as well,” Aarti says.

Another way to go about it could be to lead with the questions the children ask. For more information, read TNM’s article on how to talk to kids about COVID-19 here.

How to respond

Experts suggest the following methods.

- Have a routine. Without physiological changes, it can be difficult to make a change. So focus on having regular sleep, eating habits. Have some amount of physical activity – whether it is running or crawling at home for younger kids, or walking on the terrace.

- Set aside time for age-appropriate bonding rituals. Even if you are a working parent, engage your child in some chores, like putting the dishes away or preparing food, even if it is just for half an hour every day.

- Stay informed but not by obsessively consuming news. Monitor what your child is seeing online and in the news.

- Engage children in free play (not gadget assisted), because they can play out their fears. This helps reduce their anxiety. Arts and crafts work really well and can be therapeutic. 

- When they want to talk or play, be available, and keep promises. Very young children especially, will not say, “I am feeling anxious.” Be mindful that they may instead need more attention, play time with loved ones and reassurance.

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