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Protecting children as the pandemic takes a psychological toll

by Kritika M Narula

There are many ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic might take a psychological toll on children. Here’s how we can protect them.

What has been the impact of coronavirus on children? According to most reports, children have largely remained unscathed from the severe symptoms of the coronavirus infection. However, the social and economic impact “is potentially catastrophic for millions of children", according to a UN report. Recently, TIME also reported on how the effect of the pandemic on children’s mental health is deepening. 

In an unprecedented situation, over 188 countries worldwide suspended schools as a preventative measure to mitigate person-to-person transmission. The lockdown panic, the quarantine, the deluge of information and glaring statistics about the pandemic together make for a heady mix of psychological stressors for the children. For months now, they’ve been living in a world where their daily rituals have been unequivocally altered.

Such a psychological toll on children has been observed all over the world. Early reports from World Vision showed that the isolation and loneliness – triggered by school closures – was impacting 71% of children, while 91% expressed their extreme discomfort manifesting as emotional distress, anxiety, anger, and worry. This impact – in one version or another – is palpable across countries. In Spain, reportedly 90% of the parents described concerning “emotional and behavioural changes in their kids”, spanning concentration difficulties, irritability and anxiety. 

Here in the UK, mental health charity YoungMinds surveyed 2111 young people aged 25 years and under with a history of mental health issues. Eighty three percent of them experienced an aggravation of their condition, with 26% facing problems in accessing mental healthcare as teletherapy can be challenging for some groups to use. Similar reports have surfaced from Italy, China, and India, among others. 

Missing routines & peers

The most obvious cause here is the disruption of routines. As Ezra Golberstein, a health-policy researcher at the University of Minnesota explains, “There’s the disease itself and the fear of it. On top of that, you’ve got the lock-downs, with kids removed from the school environment and their friends.” Children have gone through an entire summer without the normalcy of socialisation. The rules of interaction have changed – and it has certainly not escaped their notice. Routines are important for children, as they provide a sense of security and help them develop self-discipline. Right now, any semblance of certainty has gone awry. It doesn’t help that the pandemic has caused a surge in internet usage, putting children at a greater risk of being targeted by perpetrators through social media, apps and gaming.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Struggling to understand

Let’s dive into the ways in which this prolonged school closure and home containment has made children more vulnerable. It has been observed since the early days how some children believe that the very act of stepping outside could be deadly, as they’re having what the American Psychological Association defines as “an emotional response to a terrible event”. Cath Knibbs, a Cyber Specialist and trauma psychotherapist shares:
“Children pick up on fear by watching behaviours – they could possibly be anxious even to step out or to infect the older people in the house. Their fears can be calmed to a large extent by having a transparent conversation with them, so they can get all accurate information with a complete picture, rather than scary statistics that they might be exposed to inadvertently."

For younger children, it's a struggle to understand what’s happening. For the adolescents, it’s aggravated. Children have been acting out. Dr Koyeli Sengupta, a developmental paediatrician shared, “A mother told me that her child is not even letting her go to the bathroom. In slightly older children, three to six-year-olds, a common thought is ‘did I do something wrong that my parents went away?’”

Other negative experiences as children become vulnerable 

Another way children have become vulnerable during this time is through their home confinement with family members who are possibly not coping well with the events. Experts maintain that a child’s safety is largely influenced by the extent to which their family has been impacted by a turn of events. A loss in the family or a strained economic situation can aggravate vulnerabilities or create new ones. 

Risk factors for violence, exploitation and abuse increase manifold for children under restricted mobility (as is the case with lockdown and quarantining measures) and socioeconomic decline (as the economic consequences become more defined). Kate Young, CEO of Safeguarding Association calls it the perfect storm where parents are struggling to manage the financial impact & their constant worry about the children, “From a safeguarding perspective, I would anticipate a huge increase in the number of concerns. And probably, even for those children who've never been on your radar before. Some children have suddenly fallen into the at-risk category. To manage that, schools need to have a good support system in place to manage such cases, and have resources in the form of professionals that the children can turn to.”

At the other end of the continuum, there are children experiencing abuse, neglect or exposure to potential harm. This could either be due to reduced access to trusted adults outside the family, unclear communication from stressed parents or individual feelings of loneliness.

Parents taking to maladaptive coping mechanisms – alcohol misuse, substance abuse, or denial – can exacerbate the situation further. Such behaviours are known to co-occur with child abuse, and with such behaviours increasing during the lockdown, the knock-on effect on children is concerning.

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Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

Safeguarding children as schools reopen

It’s likely that when children return to school, they’ll bring with them a mixed bag of experiences. It is important to be prepared for the impact that the pandemic has had on children’s mental wellbeing and to provide active support in this regard.

As a starting point, the Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) in the school should chalk up a bespoke plan to provide a safe space for children to share their experience, especially in the first few weeks back. Some measures include:

  • An extensive identification of the range of possible issues concerning children’s mental health
  • Providing signposting and information to children seeking help/support if they experienced abuse or neglect during this time, especially with limited access to trusted adults
  • Provision of specialist support for victims of domestic abuse or trauma 
  • Training for school staff to recognise signs of troubled conditions and to respond sensitively, including child development science and how trauma can manifest in behavioural problems or poor emotional regulation
  • Scrutinising attendance records to identify patterns in children missing from school and sharing information with necessary relevant parties where appropriate
  • Address digital exclusion and provide resources – technological, therapeutic and mobility-related – for greater access under a blended learning approach
  • Scheduling mandatory psychological check-ups with school counsellors
  • Leveraging the power of peer support groups to help children feel safe

Ultimately, it is imperative to acknowledge that the pandemic has unevenly impacted all children – for some the pain will be more pronounced than others, while some may be suffering in silence. The goal, for school authorities, teachers, and safeguarding professionals, will be to successfully address any and all traumatic experiences and to help create safe spaces that provide much-needed relief through such hardship.

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posted 17 days ago
Kritika M Narula
Kritika is a research and media professional based in India.