COVID-19 is creating adult like worries for children. The media attention, health reports, images of the sick and desperate, stories of financial hardships, job-losses, businesses suffering, has altered our state of well-being.
Adults forget that children are quietly absorbing the angst of our conversations about negativity and death, as poignantly portrayed recently on the front pages of The New York Times. Suffering caused by the pandemic is no longer a distant reality that children are protected from. It is the mainstay of their days, penetrating and permanently altering their views of themselves and the world we live in.
As time passes, children are increasingly becoming “worried” about the world around them from close and from afar.
Global and community-based social policies prioritize the mental health and safety of the most vulnerable among us. Yet, in the maze of social consequences caused by the pandemic, the emotional suffering and drastic alteration to a child’s conscious reality remains unaddressed.
Why is this important? Our children are the gatekeepers of our future generations. They learn and attach rudimentary meanings from symbolic communication. Language, eye contact, gestures, tone of emotions from others are the sensibilities by which children become social beings.
Peers, teachers, parents, and siblings act as the “looking-glass self,” magnifying how children learn who they are. The role of adults is to inspire and nurture a child’s social bonds through relationship building, a reality the pandemic has changed.
Significant and drastic change affects a child’s mental health. It is on this backdrop that the Harvard Child Development Center reinforces the “serve and return” practice. In short, consistency and maintenance of primary and secondary relationships remains paramount to a child’s well-being.
Social distancing has resulted in broken communication and a sense of isolation and loneliness. Pandemic related alienation (Persaud, 2020) has unquestionably created a unique mindset upon the template of a child’s psyche. Therefore, parents and caregivers must be aware of the patterns of broken trust that’s manifesting in a child’s life.
From being told to “stay home” and not go to school, to you cannot “go outside and play,” to parents encouraging more online activities “for learning,” at once, children are now expected to do what they were not suppose to be doing. Parents are being tasked with encouraging their children to unlearn much of what they were taught and re-learn in the reverse direction.
It is safe to say that managing your child’s stress and their need to fathom a new reality is yet another worry in the long list of challenges facing parents. There’s been no other epoch for which children have experienced such a drastic onset of rapid change to their daily realities as the present.
As a social scientist observing how rapid social change affects personal interactions and one’s sense of self, it is becoming clearer that the pandemic has altered the mind and spirit of the younger population.
The expectation of a shift in mindset (Persaud, 2020) means that children are suddenly left grappling with not doing the things they have always been taught to do, and the consequences to their mental health cannot be ignored.
It is difficult enough for adults to absorb and adjust to the momentary yet elongated changes to our roles and responsibilities. Understandably, in tending to the immediate concerns of health and protection, and adjusting to new realities, we are only now realizing that the feelings of children have been pushed aside.
I realized this the hard way. One night as I read to my child before bedtime, she asked me “why do I have to stay home in my lifetime mama, why can’t I go to school and see my friends, this is not fair, and why are people dying and sick everywhere in the world, everyone should live and be happy, did this happen when you were little? As would any parent, I tried to quell her concerns and talk about her feelings and fears.
I realized that empathetic sharing and listening about feelings was no longer an effective parenting strategy in this time of COVID-19. I had no answer for my child, indeed, she was correct, I had not lived through anything as the current pandemic. The confounding array of emotions that children are faced with are projected to parents as young minds seek answers. Our generation has not experienced the scope and severity of changes as our children. I was never told not to go to school, not to play with friends, and not to show love and affection to family members.
Therefore, parents are learning as they go, there is no manual. The topic of pandemic parenting was never a concern, until now.
Faced with a sudden thrust toward parenting at home on the backdrop of our children’s fears, parents too, are living a new reality.
Willingness to guide and nurture our children’s mental health becomes eclipsed by the continual flow of information and work from home obligations. How do we make sense of living all our life’s events, and all our roles, all at once, all at home?
Telling my child “that everything will be fine” proved to be the wrong answer. Children are perceptive, and in these moments, saying “it will be fine” can be met with denial. In response to me, my daughter said:
“It is not fine. I cannot see my friends, I cannot see my teachers, I cannot play at the park, I cannot go to the mall, I cannot see my grandparents, we cannot go to dinner, we cannot go to the movies, we cannot go on vacation, we cannot go for ice-cream, we cannot do all the amazing things we used to do as a family, how can it be fine mama?”My child was right, giving a sense of false hope was not the answer.
The realization is parents must allow and encourage children as they express worry and make sense of a new reality. This is not a ruminating worry, rather, it enables them know that their feelings and fears are real, and acknowledging the reality and relevance of their worries can have a positive impact.
Here are 5 Ways to help your child through thoughts of worry during the pandemic:
- Acknowledgement: Do not deny your child’s feelings, acknowledge that their feelings are real and legitimate. Think of their worries from their mini-world perspective and let them know they are not alone. A child will open up to the notion that their friends are also worried about the same things.
- Assurance: Assure your child that you are there to listen and you care about their feelings. This is paramount because if a child feels you will deny their worries, they will be less likely to trust and share their thoughts with you. This is especially true for children who might express worries “out of the blue.”
- Distraction: The paradox of letting your child express feelings of worries is that it opens you, the parent or caregiver to know what they are thinking. You can use the information to distract and manage daily activities. Control what they see, or hear. Family conversations about all the negativity of COVID-19 should be limited.
- Playfulness: Parents are stressed for good reason, but even a few minutes of laughter and playful silliness can make a huge difference in a child’s day. The sound of you and your child expressing happiness together is priceless.
- Hopefulness: Always remind your child that there is always hope and we must look for the rainbow, the light beyond the darkness. Hopeful assurance allows a child to understand that what we are experiencing and their worries are temporary. This too shall pass. There will be sunshine after all.
Dr Renu Persaud is a clinical sociologist and lecturing professor.
Her best-selling and award-winning book The Mastery of You is available at [email protected]