Being able to wake up late, stay home and play with her dolls all day, was a treat for nine-year-old Lauren Cho initially. No school? No problem.
But the reality of the movement control order (MCO) - having to stay away from school and her friends indefinitely, being unable to go out for meals with her family or go to the playground in the evenings - eventually hit Lauren hard and the little girl broke down.
“She couldn’t sleep at night and cried and told us that she’s starting to hate being at home all day. We quickly put in a routine for her and her younger sister, Julia, who is 8. We also bought a bunch of art and craft stuff that she likes to do to help her kill time. We took out our old, dusty badminton rackets too, ” says Lauren’s mum, Catherine Tan.
Even before the MCO was enforced, Tan and her husband Cho We Jun sat with their two girls to explain what was going on and how it could affect their lives.
“But when Lauren developed her anxiety, we decided to instill an MCO routine for them at home which became easier once their school started giving them work on Google classroom. We will also make sure they get accurate information, ” says Tan.
But how much do we tell children about the pandemic?
Let your children guide youTake cues from your chidlren, advises Lean Ong, crisis counsellor and psychologist.
“Parents may be at a loss over what to tell their children about Covid-19. They want to protect their children but at the same time, they don’t want to frighten them. Start by first finding out what your children already know.
“What do they understand about the coronavirus? Have they heard their friends or teachers talking about it? This is a good way of gauging if the information they have is accurate.
“Listen to them and decide where to go from there. Each child is different - some want to spend a lot of time talking about it and they may have many questions while others may not be interested one bit. Either way is ok, just follow their lead, ” says Ong, who was an emergency responder for a sexual assault response team at the Centre for Community Solutions in the United States. She was also the manager for the Women’s Centre for Change in Penang where she trained a team of social workers and counsellors.
Parents, says Ong, must keep checking in on their children regularly and “keep the conversation channels open.”
Most children can understand the basics. Univerisiti Malaya public health specialist Assoc Prof Dr Nik Darliana Nik Farid says children as young as three are able to understand basic information to keep them safe.
Nepie Villa decided to talk to her three-year-old son Keeran Nathanial Jeyaratnam about the virus to make him understand why his routine had changed: no more school during the week and no weekend trips to his aunt’s house for the moment.
“He wanted to know why he couldn’t go to school anymore and why he can’t visit his aunties and uncle every weekend like he usually does. So we told him that there are a lot of bugs outside and people are not allowed to go outside because they will get sick.
“With Keeran, it is easy because he understands that bugs will make us sick. For one week, he kept asking me every morning if he could go to school. He’d also ask his father if he can go out and his father will tell him the same thing, that there is a bug or a virus outside that can make him sick. He accepts this and instead, makes plans about what he will do ‘in two weeks’ once he can go out again, ” says Nepie.
With children as young as Keeran, Dr Nik Darliana suggests focusing on good health behaviours (coughing and sneezing into the elbow and washing hands frequently) and basic information.
“But for primary school-going children, parents need to listen to their children’s concerns and worries and encourage them to communicate their feelings. Apart from teaching them about hygienic and healthy practices, talk to them about social distancing too.
“Those in secondary school can be made to realise the role they play in keeping the virus at bay, ” says Dr Nik Darliana.
She adds that since many parents are now working from home, the MCO is a good time to model positive behaviour for children to follow.
“Parents are the best examples for their children. If they themselves adhere to the MCO, practise good hygiene and social distancing, their children will follow, ” she says.
Children, she points out, have different needs depending on their maturity. With younger children, it is important to keep discussions direct and simple. Older children may have more questions and more fears or anxieties they may need to share.
Be straight with childrenIt is important that parents be straight with their children about the pandemic, but at the same time, reassuring. Some children may be anxious about their health or their family’s health. Others may be upset about the change in their routine. Recognise their fears and address it directly.
“Never lie to them; be as truthful but don’t offer details that your child may not be able to comprehend. Discuss about school closings, perhaps what they can do while at home. Create a new routine or structure together and address any other questions they might have, ” offers Ong.
With the easy accessibility of information through their smartphones or tablets, children may hear all sorts of information about the virus and how it will affect them or their loved ones.
Ambiguities and false information about the pandemic can cause stress and anxiety among children, warns Dr Nik Darliana.
“To reduce these feelings of anxiety, parent need to provide right information to their children and keep reassuring them that by staying home and staying clean, they are doing what they need to stay safe, ” she says.
Don’t pretend to know everything and don’t worry about not being able to answer their questions, says Ong.
“If you do not know, tell them. Admit to them that you have no idea and maybe suggest that you search for an answer together. But go to reliable sources like the World Health Organisation or listen to the briefings by Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah.
“Children don’t need to know how many people died or other information that may frighten them. Encourage them to come to you if they hear any information they are unsure of, ” says Ong.
It is also important to let children feel that they are in control of some things. For example, explain to them that there are things they can do to protect themselves and their family - for example washing their hands, eating healthy food and getting enough sleep to build their strength.
Talk to them about the need for social distancing which is is difficult for everyone but perhaps more so for children.
Explain to them that by social distancing, we are helping the doctors and nurses take care of patients and keeping ourselves, our neighbours, friends and the elderly from falling sick too.
Keep calm and carry on
Even at a very young age, children can tell when their parents are upset, worried, angry or afraid. So, as hard as it is, parents need to not show their children how anxious they are about the pandemic. What’s also important is how parents hold themselves.
“It is difficult to not be worried, ” says Dr Nik Darliana. “But parents must make an effort to not seem upset when they talk about Covid-19 and the news. Speak calmly and reassuringly.
Explain to them that if they practise good hygiene and social distancing and stay home during this period, it is possible to protect themselves against the virus.”
Parents, says Ong, need to be mindful of their own anxiety and well-being because children take their cues from their parents.
“If they seen you anxious, they will be anxious. Limit your exposure to news updates and coverage. While you want to stay updated, you need to know what you can handle. Avoid obsessing about the news coverage and following every single update, ” concludes Ong.
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