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Looking after children's mental health and safety during a crisis

by Kritika M Narula

The recent COVID-19 outbreak has presented a number of unprecedented challenges — there is the obvious threat to our physical health and wellbeing but then and there is a less obvious threat too — that of anxiety triggered by a combination of uncertainty and disruption to our routines. The necessary but unusual series of response actions to the global pandemic — social distancing and isolation — can seem scary, especially to children.

Not only are children finding themselves in unfamiliar circumstances (which can seem a lot like a punishment), but this is the generation that was already dealing with anticipatory grief, eco-anxiety and the like. As educators, parents and guardians, it is important for us to preempt the severe psychological impact of these changes during the coronavirus-induced distancing as well as in the aftermath of this crisis, when we will try to find the ‘new normal’. 

Cath Knibbs, a Cyber Specialist and trauma psychotherapist shares that her foremost concern in the current situation is the nature of exposure to information that children have:

Young people aren’t being communicated to, and even when they are, it is a highly confusing messaging. On one hand, the schools are asking them not to panic and on the other hand, the children can see their parents hoarding supplies. They are utterly perplexed as to why mom or dad have brought home reams of crisps, biscuits and sausage rolls at once.” 

Such cognitive dissonance is not as easy to perceive and yet is capable of psychological harm. So how do we ensure that children are protected in a crisis?

Acknowledge the elephant in the room

Research has shown us that acknowledgement of a problem is the first step towards solving it. The global pandemic and the sheer uncertainty it brings with it can be crippling for adults and children alike. So the first step to handling the situation at hand is admitting that it is scary and that you don’t have all the answers. 

Knibbs has advice for everyone who communicates with children: 

Uncertainty can be wobbly, but the only way out is through. Sit with the children, tell them you don’t know everything either. It leaves a door for conversations open for them. Then have a dialogue with them, use the curiosity of children to take them through all possible scenarios.” 

She adds, “You can exhaust yourself with all the ‘what-ifs’, but you’ll still not have all the answers. So, stop making the pandemic, the infection such a fearful and taboo thing.” Knibbs concludes: ”We, as a culture, don’t talk about death, but we are constantly looking at the statistics in the form of a death toll. It is important to address it sensitively.

Don’t let the breaking news headlines break you

In a webinar on Parenting During COVID-19, Clinical Psychologist and NLP Practitioner Aarti C Rajaratnam shared similar concerns, “‘The death toll is being talked about in the news like a sporting tournament. We have to understand that it is disturbing for a lot of children.” The language being used in the media is centred around the metaphor of war: the ‘war on coronavirus’, or the battle against it, or for that matter calling the healthcare workers 'fighters' or 'warriors’ — this language, combined with the sensationalised reportage in the press, tends to create unnecessary alarm. The constant barrage of headlines can aggravate anxiety for those who are already dealing with mental health issues or chronic illnesses in the lockdown. 

Do your best during this time to limit the children’s exposure to media coverage on coronavirus. The best strategy is to tune in once a day to get the latest news and information on government directives and then unplug from constant updates for the rest of the day. Keep children updated and informed on the practical aspects — how they can stay safe, and nothing more. Additionally, restrict their exposure to constant updates by using parental controls on their smartphones and other devices. 

Support from Schools

It is highly likely that even in the aftermath of the pandemic, as we will try to inch towards a routine again, children will feel disoriented yet again. Schools should take proactive measures in this regard. Administrators should consider surveying children during this time to see if they need counselling, the Designated Safeguarding Lead or Deputy should be available at all times even in online classes, teachers should check-in with children about how they are feeling at the beginning of classes. Such circumstances require educators and school authorities to show an increased level of empathy.

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Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

Focus on preparedness to beat ‘mental toxins’

We have previously discussed the preventive and protective guidelines to be implemented when children spend an increasing amount of time online, both for studying and recreation. Knibbs voices her concern, ‘Imagine the number of perpetrators that will be online!’ With so many children online, they can become easy targets of cyberbullying, phishing, identity theft, among other threats. Rajaratnam also sends a word of caution, referring to the predatory content and information available online as ‘mental toxins.’ 

How can we get rid of these mental toxins? Diana Graber, Founder of CyberCivics, shares a plan of action to prepare our children to go out into the virtual world without putting their mental health in jeopardy:

The best way for parents to help their children not to panic about anything they encounter online is to start early. As soon as your children begin using connected devices, go online with them! Discuss what they do/see. Let them know that they can ask you questions about anything that happens online, good and bad. Assure them that they won’t get in trouble and that you are always there to help.”  

Nick Lambe, Director at GordAlex Limited, echoes the same worry, reasoning that 

the risk of being a victim to an online attack or cyber scam is greater at the moment simply because the criminals are aware that there are many more people of all ages using technology when working from home or just chatting with friends whilst self-isolating.”

He has unique advice to offer: use yourself as a human firewall. Phishing, spam emails, cyberbullying — all involve a human element at the other end, too. If an email puts pressure on you to act immediately and attaches consequences if you don’t, it is likely a bait. Don’t fall for it. Lambe has a quick tech-checklist to go with this advice:

  • Have a VPN (Virtual Private Network) on every device that you own
  • Make use of a Password Keeper like LastPass or 1Password that lets you use highly complex passwords
  • Install a virus checker like AVAST or Sophos
  • Always avoid using unsecured or public Wi-Fi connections

Activities for emotional nourishment

Parents should let children indulge in some downtime: a recreational time when they are not expected to create educational output or achieve certain goals. Use this time to connect as a family. Play card games, Scrabble, or just chat — this can go a long way in creating and maintaining a general sense of well-being and belonging. You can also bring them on fun virtual excursions to various museums or gaze at wildlife at Explore.org.

Allow them to have healthy peer interactions. Set up virtual playdates (for the younger children) and let them chat with their friends (in case of adolescents). Even so, keep in mind how the presence of a screen will impact their interactions. For one, the use of technology makes them vulnerable to instances of cyberbullying, predatory attacks in the form of phishing, etc. Keep a keen watch on the apps and tools being used. FaceTime or WhatsApp for video chats with friends is a safe option. 

Secondly, the younger children might also respond with confusion over the barrier of a screen between them and their friends. Using a technology like Portal might help to create a more friendly environment. At the same time, parents should find gentle ways to explain to children why they are communicating the way that they are.  

And finally, remember that physical activity can be the best antidote to lethargy, boredom, isolation and illness. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends varying levels of exercise for different age groups, but make sure children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity on a daily basis. Our home-learning tool-kit lists resources that can make exercise fun for children! 

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Photo by Alberto Casetta on Unsplash

Children with special educational needs

The promise of inclusive education should extend during the pandemic too. It is important that children with a sensory disability be guided and informed about the events through visual or auditory communication, as the case may be. According to Rajaratnam, children with intellectual disabilities should be engaged in daily chores, be allowed to help and then be given appreciation for their efforts. For children on the autism spectrum, the challenge exacerbates. They fundamentally thrive and survive on structure and routine, both of which have been severely disturbed. Her suggestion? “Stay in touch with the occupational therapists over telecommunication, figure out small interventions together, make use of Social Stories.

Children are bound to feel a lot of emotions like fear, anger or frustration. Tell them It is completely okay to feel that way and guide them through those feelings so they bounce back from the panic they might feel. Keep them engaged in mindful and calming pursuits. Answer any questions they have in a gentle manner. The bottom line is that children should not feel like the world is spinning out of control.

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posted 3 months ago
Kritika M Narula
Kritika is a research and media professional based in India.