As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread in India and in the world at large, there is zooming evidence from various surveys such as Action for Children, indicating that the restrictions have an impact on the mental health of children and adolescents as well.
Children have been cooped up in their homes, unable to meet and play with their friends. In the past, they had normal social interactions, a part of their routine.
As a result, they are being deprived of some of the biggest moments in their young lives. Many parents are reaching out for parenting and counselling advice. In fact, not just children, many parents are also facing issues of anxiety and sleeplessness. Hence, the impact is increasingly being seen on the psychosocial well-being of different sections of our population.
As it is, children and young girls and boys are the most vulnerable section of society. They appear to be experiencing the brunt of this crisis. Most of them find themselves unable to absorb the change, an outcome of the pandemic. This leads them to feel confused, frustrated, anxious and carry a sense of fear of the unknown.
It's easy to get overwhelmed with everything we hear about coronavirus (COVID-19) right now. It is also understandable that children are upset. They find it difficult to understand what they see online or on television - or what they hear from other people. In effect, they appear to be vulnerable to anxiety, stress, and sadness.
In addition, there is an overflow of messages. They are face to face with them during this lockdown. It has an impact on them and often grips their mind with fear. By playing with friends and going to school, children enjoy the most. Unfortunately, it has been replaced by excessive screen time.
This kind of a change in their normal routine is making them feel agitated, aggressive or even withdrawn. It is important for parents to be more vigilant about the online safety of their children including monitoring of not -age-appropriate apps, and teach them about online safety by limiting their screen time.
Some adults may struggle to find ways to explain and communicate with children about the current situation in a way that is understandable by this age group. Otherwise, it can add to their frustration.
COVID-19 is also bringing new stresses on parents and caregivers. This can hamper their capacity to provide care. A need of the hour is to remain engaged with their own children.
SELF-CARE IS IMPORTANT
Being a responsible parent, he has to take it as a daily challenge. Faced with the grim realities of COVID-19, social distancing and self-quarantine, it may appear to be a struggle for him. So, for parents, the best way to help their children is to first take care of themselves. Self-care during these unprecedented times is not selfishness. So because it enables the caregivers to be there for their children as a stable, calm and soothing parent.
This way, I believe, parents can better understand their children and help them feel reassured, relaxed and focused. As observers of people and environments, children notice, absorb and react to the stress in their parents and caregivers. Unavoidably, please remember, it can affect their well-being. And this, in turn, can only be the beginning.
Levels of stress can be exponentially higher among vulnerable families. For them, who are deprived of parental care in child care institution or in alternative care, children living in the streets, or child migrants on the move, for example, their situation must be seriously challenging.
Prior experiences in public health emergencies have demonstrated that there is a high possibility of an increase in incidents of violence, including gender-based conflict, domestic tension or corporal punishment against children and women. With the current movement restrictions, girls and boys, who become victims of violence, may face obstacles to seek help and have access to support systems.
BE THERE FOR YOUR CHILDREN
As parents and senior family members, we can help our children overcome this difficult time by observing if there is any change in the behaviour of the children. As parents, we must remain calm and listen to children’s problems and build a trusting relationship with them. Make them feel that you trust them and you are there for them.
CREATE HEALTHY HABITS
Engage them in exercises, dancing, yoga, etc. Empathise and understand their feelings and the stress, their fear and anxiety and empower, nurture them and guide them with facts.
We can keep them engaged in an age-appropriate family or household activities. Connect with relatives and friends through online media such as video calls. Draw a routine for your children. It should include productive time (studies), fun time such as favourite games, a chill or relax time, bedtime and wake up time. Ask children to develop a self- care plan by including actions on how can “I keep myself fit; how can I make myself happy; who are the people I trust” and so on.
Engagement in activities builds strength, inculcates positive thinking and helps children develop self- confidence. We can ask our children to maintain a gratitude jar – ask them to write one thing before going to bed. At the end of the week, read it out with them. This brings hope and gives a number of reasons to generate a smile in their face.
In fact, we realise that many children are facing these odds. Which is why UNICEF in partnership with Central Institute of Psychiatry, DWCD and Health and Education Department has reached out to over 2100 children and other stakeholders including functionaries of child care institutions, teachers, health functionaries, NGO volunteers, ChildLine and District Child Protection Unit staff, Child Welfare Committee, Juvenile Justice Board Members, Counsellors and oriented them on mental health and psycho-social sessions over the last two and a half months. We have also organised parenting week webinars and interviews to help parents provide support to their children.
One thing common among us is: we are all going through this crisis together and doing our best to adapt to the new reality. Focus and dedication on the mental health and wellbeing of children and caregivers is just as important as taking precautions against the virus. We will overcome the crisis unitedly soon.
(The author is the Chief of UNICEF in Jharkhand)