A 12-year-old recently shared with me that she felt very scared at home, “My parents are very stressed out, and they end up taking it out on me.” The father had recently lost his job due to COVID 19, which had left the family financially insecure. A few months back, she had lost her grandmother whom she was very close to. “They think it is not affecting me, but I am terrified most of the time. Stress is like the polluted air, and we are all breathing it in.”
This conversation stayed with me (as most discussions with children do), and I kept thinking of how we were polluting the air for our kids at home. Like a dripping tap draining the water tank, this nagging voice of stress had sapped us of our energy, leaving us feeling exhausted and frazzled. And, unwittingly, we were passing it on to our children as they become more vulnerable to triple jeopardy. One – like sponges they are soaking our emotions but not being able to label them; two – we parents are so caught up in our anxieties that we are not able to pick up cues; three – as a society we are trained to not prioritise children’s emotional needs. We conveniently dump our stress on them just because we can. The numbers across the world are showing a rise in calls to helplines for domestic violence and child abuse.
Our children are paying for the mistakes of their adults, and though they might be protected from COVID 19, they are most vulnerable to the fallout of it. So what can we do?
Keep our eyes and heart open
Is there a change in their behaviour? It could be anything from becoming more cranky, fearful, clingy, crying a lot to not eating well, getting repeated nightmares. We might see our young adults shutting themselves in their rooms, disturbed sleep patterns, constantly on their phones, snapping at us or refusing to engage. Rather than reacting with anger let’s find a way to talk to them about it – using play, art, stories with little ones and just a gentle, respectful, non-blaming presence with the older ones. Be empathetic and see what their world is like right now. They don’t need us to fix it for them; they need us to listen to them with our whole heart.
Ask and not tell
Children are not passive recipients or strangers to adversity. They might have very interesting and innovative ideas of their own too. Ask them rather than advising or lecturing about everything. “What is troubling you?” “How can we help?” “What do you think will help you get better sleep?” Take out a notebook or a whiteboard – make a mind map and brainstorm with them.
Give them choices and space
Most of us are feeling crowded in our homes. It is as if all our identities and roles have been collapsed in small spaces where we have to work, parent, do household chores and stay reasonably calm and optimistic. Children and youth (this loss of freedom and autonomy can be especially hard for them) might be feeling the same as they have been robbed of so many of their spaces – school, colleges, parks, cafes, friends’ homes, etc. So it might be a good idea to work out areas in the house – maybe drawing a map and allocating time for each family member. They also need sense of agency rather than being dictated to all the time. I learned a cool and collaborative 10-fingers exercise from a colleague – when one hand is for the child to choose five things she would like to do, and five things parents would like the child to do in the day.
Let’s make our children’s safety our top priority
There will be times when we will mess up – snap at them, push our agenda, criticise or be unfair- we need to apologise immediately and be mindful of the inequity of power in this relationship. Especially when they do not have anybody else to turn to or seek help from. If we realise that we are at the risk of abusing our child, then we need to seek help immediately. We need to take this step for the safety of our child otherwise, she might carry the scars for the rest of her life, and we will lug the guilt and shame of it. The memories of the pandemic will stay in our children’s memory banks forever. The question to all the parents is, “What deposits are we making?”
Let it be
We are all surviving a pandemic so please let the perfectionism go and choose your battles. A messy house, your child skipping homework or a bath is not going to make so much of a difference. You might have seen that experiment where a class is given many big stones and sand to fit in a jar. If we start by filling the jar (your life right now) with sand (what really does not matter) first then there will be no space for rocks (what really matters). Make space for the rocks first and sand will just find its way between the crevices.
“You- me – we”
When there are struggles and conflicts (those are inevitable too), this simple communication approach can work wonders. “You” – I listen to you from my heart (and not just waiting for you to finish speaking) even though I might not agree with you. “Me” – I share my perspective with you and it is alright if you do not agree with me. “We” – we will work at something together that works for both of us. For example – the college student who is feeling “low” might take to sleeping through the day as “there is nothing much to do.” Your perspective might be, “I get what you are saying, but I would really like to spend some time with you through the day.” Together the decision might be for the young person to get up by 12 noon and together you cook up a meal before you get back to work.
Acts of kindness
Encouraging children and youth to get involved in projects that make our world better place is going to be the best healing for them. It is only when we rise above our day to day concerns and contribute to humanity that we learn to find peace. If history has taught us anything, it is this – through times, whether the humanity faced the wars, the partition, the disasters – what has helped us heal is kindness – heaps and heaps of it – directed in words, action, acts of service, donations, whatever it takes to heal the world.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines