Heading back to school is a happy-nervy transition in a child’s life.
Reunions with classmates, swapping vacation stories, new classes and teachers. This summer though, has been different. As the digital academic year commences for many, kids may be feeling the stress of the indefinite COVID-19 lockdown that began in late March.
Children aren’t equipped to process these heavy emotions on their own. It’s why we need to check in with them and ensure they’re coping with the uncertainty of the pandemic in healthy ways.
1. Start with yourself
“It’s important to acknowledge where you’re at and your coping mechanisms. It’s something that your kids are emulating,” says Bengaluru-based student counsellor Yogita Hastak Menon. Taking time to work through your own discomfort and staying informed about the facts will allow you to support your child better.
2. Initiate conversations organically
Be conscious of teachable moments that present themselves in everyday activities like family game night, cooking together, casual conversations or when the child asks a question. These moments offer opportunities to put things into context. “This helps us get an idea about what their line of thinking is, so that we don’t launch into something too scientific or give them more information than they can handle,” explains Mumbai-based anthroposophic psychologist Nirupama Rao.
Hastak Menon observes that older kids tend to avoid burdening parents and try to handle things independently. Transparent communication is therefore essential to clarify possible assumptions and establish ways to collectively flow in a certain direction, she says.
Further Reading: A resource pool of children’s e-books about the coronavirus.
3. Keep it age-appropriate
Very young children (3-6 years) have a million questions a minute, but do not necessarily expect answers. It’s just them wondering about the world out loud. “Too many answers [especially scientific ones] too soon, can kill their wonder and curiosity and this will lead to them becoming jaded too soon or in this case only exacerbate their anxiety," says Rao. Use the opportunity to get creative with answers that weave a story. She illustrates how thorough hand-washing routines can be explained, “When shampoo goes into your eyes, remember how you cry and need to cover your eyes? Similarly, the virus is so scared of soap that it runs away every time we wash our hands.” It’s also OK not to offer a direct answer with replies like, “I too was wondering the same thing” or “What do you think?”
While older kids are high on opinions, they’re often awkward to voice them, especially when it comes to stronger issues. Hastak Menon notes that boys tend to struggle more with self-expression during the pre-teen and teen years. Peer group support is key to the adolescent stage of development. Being forcefully cut off from that is mentally challenging to say the least. Additionally, many in year 10 and 12 have had to reconsider plans to study abroad. “You have to develop new coping mechanisms but it’s difficult to have that clarity of thought,” she elaborates. “So there are breakdowns, kids are lashing out and they don’t know why. We have to facilitate conversations that help them understand their feelings in a clear way.” She suggests asking open-ended questions that encourage dialogue. Don’t lead with an opinion as it could create a barrier where kids may feel conscious of being judged for having a different point of view.
4. Empathise and reassure
Validation goes a long way in ensuring children feel seen and opening up further conversation. Hear your child out, acknowledge and absorb their perspective. Try empathetic statements such as “I can see that you’re feeling anxious/scared and that’s understandable.” Depending on the age, reassure them with positive facts like ongoing scientific research, frontline workers doing their best, organisations looking for creative solutions, and of course parents who always have their back.
Words paint vivid pictures in our mind. Use the ones that reflect a desired state. For instance, “Let’s stay calm. Experts are working on a solution,” rather than “Stop worrying, it will make you feel worse.”
5. Look out for red flags
It’s important to monitor children with pre-existing mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, OCDs, closely and ensure they’re getting the healthcare they need.
"At a time when we don’t have our regular routine, there’s nowhere to escape from our thoughts. That can be extremely overwhelming. We’re seeing mental health issues are on the rise," says Hastak Menon.
Rao points out that unexpressed anxieties often manifest as somatic symptoms like a tummy ache or a headache. Other tell-tale signs include major mood fluctuations or changes in behaviour. This could vary from symptoms of fear and panic to newly developed obsessive-compulsive behaviour like hand washing or a change in habit like excessive engagement on social media.
Both experts say that checking in regularly can help clear doubts, encourage acceptance of the change and create a much-needed safe space at home. It’s also crucial to not shy away from professional support when required. After all, mental wellness is core to navigating these challenging times.
Nirupama Rao is an anthroposophic psychologist and author with over two decades of experience in the area of child development and special needs. She works with a host of schools, NGOs and hospitals across India. Find her at Niraamayaa.
Yogita Hastak is a student counsellor with 12 years of experience working with educational institutions in India and abroad.