The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a lot of attention to mental health related issues. A lot of necessary discussion has been taking place on a variety of media platforms with mental issues ranging from anxiety to depression to paranoia. Most of these discussions however, have been directed to adults. There is an underlying assumption that young children do not experience depression and stress and this could not be farther from the truth. Even the discussion around opening the schools often centers around their education and on how to prevent the children from contacting the novel virus but not around the latter’s effect on their mental health.
Children are experts at picking emotional cues from their primary caregivers. The stress, depression and anxiety that their caregivers are going through does affect them and it important, therefore, for parents to talk to their children about the virus: what it is, how it spreads, that governments and Biomedics are doing the best they can to get a vaccine, how to protect themselves and to know that if they take precautions, they will not get sick and if they do, they can get better.
The traumatic effect of the Covid-19 will not be felt mostly on their lack of education and schooling but it will be felt in their being isolated from their friends. Children’s personality is still growing and their capacity to process such difficult situations is largely undeveloped. The important skills they need to learn in order to thrive in the world happens in the playground. It is there that they learn how to cooperate, compete and compromise. It is in the interaction with their friends that they learn to be self-confident and develop a personal identity. The school environment teaches them self-discipline, how to negotiate with friends and other important social skills. In the place of these skills, children might experience hopelessness, isolation and desperation. This impact will be felt if especially schools are opened and the children are not permitted to play together. The solution might indeed be worse than the problem.
Even though children may not understand the global impact of covid-19, the effect of the pandemic will be mostly felt vicariously. Children develop somatic illnesses like sores when they undergo stress. This is because they do not express their emotional state verbally but physically. Parents and caregivers might be struggling to treat a physical illness which is largely psychological.
Bored children tend to focus on their stress. They might end up struggling to go to bed, waking up at night and needing more assurance that they will be okay especially in the evenings. A child who has trouble sleeping even after all other check-ups have been done may be exhibiting stress. Other behavioral symptoms include withdrawal shown by a lack of emotion. It is important therefore that children have a regular sleeping and waking schedule with physical activities during the day. Their sleep length should be at least 8-9 hours.
Other signs that a child may be experiencing stress are bone and muscle pain while still engaging in playtime without significant strain. Abdominal pain in the absence of any other illness could also be a sign. Pediatricians have advised including natural fibers in their diet to help maintain healthy bowel movements and reduce chances of constipation. Regressive behaviours such as clinging to the caregiver, thumb-sucking and wanting to be fed may be other signs that can be countered by the caregiver being more comforting and encouraging to the child.
Adults can and do make an important and positive difference in the mental health of children by offering loving kindness, a predictable environment, comfort, age-appropriate and truthful information, physical safety, encouragement and guidance. Gently asking the child about what makes them happy, worried or scared can be really helpful in guiding them to identify their emotions and developing emotional intelligence.