Illustration by Suneesh K.
Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.
Just because children don’t have jobs or bosses, financial worries and deadlines doesn’t mean they’re not struggling with the ways the pandemic has affected us. In most homes, they become silent observers and sponges to the cascading impact of Covid-19. Several older children are developing a sense of purposelessness, and questioning their role in the world, one impacted by climate change, rampaging illness, economic loss, and political divisiveness.
UNICEF recently pointed out that the behavioural changes children of various age groups are presenting that require intervention from a mental health professional range from thumb-sucking and bedwetting to aggressiveness, clinginess, withdrawal from activity and interaction. They can have disturbed eating and sleeping patterns that can include nightmares. They can be grieving for the loss of vital people and circumstances in their lives. These stunt their self-confidence that they gain through winning at everyday tasks and thereby the self-determination required to function independently as they grow.
Apart from these, there is the unsteadiness of fixed societal structures that they could once take for granted, as basic as access to stores, schools, public transport or playing in a park. This triggers the anxiety responses via the fight or flight mechanisms. Schools that use uniforms, structured timings and routines perform the vital role of equalising society in the perception of young children. The focus on technology and the visual perspective into each other’s homes has highlighted the inequalities within the peer group.
Research shows that more than 50% children still don’t have access to the internet. An estimated 506,130 children have dropped out of school in developing Asia due to their education being deprioritised by families, according to Asian Development Bank’s comprehensive report. And a UNESCO report points out that children have lost two months of learning per month they miss of school, which means some children have fallen irreparably behind others because the loss and sense of inadequacy is compounded.
As state governments move to reopen schools, the threat is not behind us, with a looming third wave. Apart from fears of contracting the actual virus, exacerbated by the apparent anxiety of parents and caregivers, schools may shut abruptly at any time. What this does is reinforce to children the view that structure is not dependable and the world is out of our control. This triggers the self-preservation instinct. As a result, children are growing up geared for the world in self-defence mode, always on their guard for the next threat. Add this to the loss in cognitive, emotional, social, physical skills that set the stage for their ability to navigate adulthood, and there is a real danger that children could be afflicted with anxiety, eating, mood, or depression disorders.
It is important at this time for parents and elders around the home to factor in the mental health of children. Participating in their lives, asking them questions, observing their mood changes, physical well-being, and including aspects of emotional and social interaction is vital. It is also important to watch for signs of self-harm, a rising sense of purposelessness, negative self-talk, a loss of interest in usual leisure and entertainment activities, and in the enthusiasm in making or working towards future plans. Do consult a mental health practitioner if these signs persist for more than 10-15 days.
Parents are themselves burdened with financial obligations and work from home pressures. It’s easy to allow children to slip between the cracks and assume all they need are the tools to study, work and play. However, children are even less equipped to navigate this new world than adults have been. The declarations of doom can seem all-consuming for a child. Parents need to calibrate how they respond to the pandemic’s challenges because the little ones are listening and imbibing.