By Dr Zirak Marker
In the wake of social distancing owing to the COVID-19 virus there are multiple short-term and long-term effects that can affect children, young adults and their families. With schools, colleges and universities shut down there are millions of children and teenagers at home. Malls, gardens, playgrounds, entertainment zones, restaurants, clubs and sports facilities too have been made inaccessible to our children. Playdates and outings have virtually stopped and there is a sense of paranoia, anxiety and an eerie silence that has crept into most of our households and societies.
However, these last few days have also been quite wonderful for our young children and their families. For most fathers who don’t get to see their children in the mornings or come back late from work at night and only get to see or spend quality time with them on weekends, this has been a blessing in disguise.
This is what we truly call spending ‘quality time’. We are able to get up in the mornings peacefully with our children without getting startled with the early morning 6:30 am alarm or the stress of having a quick bath, breakfast and running down to catch the bus on time.
We have been able to eat each meal with them — breakfast, lunch and dinner; play good-old board games on the bed; go down and get some fresh air playing hand-ball or dodge ball or just sitting around and watching a movie on a lazy afternoon. Families have found time to listen to different genres of music together, sing songs or find time to play or practice their instruments together.
What has also been surprising with our children who have been at home is that they are not extremely hell-bent on wanting to sit behind an iPad, mobile phone, computer or watch hours of TV, or play mindless games online. They want to interact, engage, have conversations, ask questions, be creative, paint or find ways to engage themselves.
With our fast-paced, crazy lives and work schedules we don’t get time such as these to ‘just be’. There is always something to do; there is always something to complete; there is always stress with work or struggling to find more time in a day.
Children today are running from class to class, attending four to five activities in a week, going for multiple tuitions, studying for exams or completing hours of daily homework. There is almost a sense of relaxation and calm that has set in at home. This gives us time to reflect and introspect and question the craziness of our daily lives.
However, on the flip side there are negative aspects of mental health on some children too. Amid the COVID-19 scare, some may be going through anxiety and fears with regards to this pandemic and not knowing how and who it would affect. Some children have brought up concerns and fears about something happening to their parents or grandparents. Some have voiced fears of them or their loved ones taken away to be quarantined.
Some are experiencing complete boredom, frustration, irritability, mood swings, acting out behaviours or screen time addiction. A few children who’ve been exposed to a lot of news and online social media coverage of this pandemic, or have had a family member or loved one infected by this virus, may go through Acute Stress Disorder (ASD).
It’s perfectly normal for a child to be upset by distressing events such as these, a natural disaster, an act of violence, a severe accident, a medical emergency, illness or the death of a family member. However, if a child experiences a particularly strong reaction to a disturbing event, it may result not only in difficulties coping with the event, but an impaired ability to function. The duration of this happening is typically from three days to a month after the event,
If the symptoms don’t subside after a month, a child may progress to the more impairing and long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To be diagnosed with this disorder, a child must exhibit a range of these following symptoms:
• Recurring, intrusive thoughts, memories or dreams of the event;
• Dissociative states in which he or she feels it is recurring;
• Distress and anxiety when triggered by things that remind him of the event;
• Efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts or feelings, and situations that remind him of the event.
• Irritability, difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, changes with appetite, problems with concentration, and negative or low moods
Acute stress disorder is diagnosed only if the symptoms persist from three to 30 days after the event. Thus, as parents, it is extremely important to follow these below mentioned guidelines to prevent this from happening and to ensure that the remaining time spent at home is a nourishing and memorable experience for all at home.
•Reassure children that this is a temporary phase and a positive way to spend quality time with family.
• Explain to them that this is an absolutely crucial way to curb the virus from spreading and that the whole world is doing the same thing. This also establishes the importance of collective responsibility.
• Help them verbalise their fears or anxieties with regards to this virus and negate all myths about the same.
• Explain to them that with these simple precautions their parents and grandparents will be secure and protected.
• Stay connected with family and their friends through video calls, chats, social media or simple regular telephonic conversations.
• Restrain and restrict disturbing news through TV, news, articles or conversations.
• Set up a routine for children at home for online school work and studies, board games, balanced screen time and do so with lots of fun, creativity and humour.
• Collective responsibility to maintain hygiene, regular hand washing, hand sanitisation, etc, for all at home.
• Let them not get affected by our anxieties, fears, questions, doubts or panic. We need to guard and limit our emotional responses in their presence.
(The writer is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and advisor – MPower)
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