WORLD Children’s Day (celebrated on Nov 20) envisages a better future for every child. There has been significant progress in improving children’s well-being over the years, but all our gains may be jeopardised by the Covid-19 pandemic. The day was observed this year amidst unprecedented disruption and changes affecting every aspect of children’s lives from learning to playtime.
Petaling Jaya Child Council found in a recent study that 38.1% of children reported their mental health was affected by the lockdown, 48% did not feel safe online and 20% did not know whom to approach if they felt stressed, anxious or depressed during this period. Given the pandemic may impact upon children’s long-term cognitive, emotional and social development, the question arises how can caregivers – parents, siblings and family members – help children cope with this crisis better?
Foremost, caregivers must be conscious about the range of stressors faced by children during the pandemic. The shutdown of schools for many months is the most severe change children have been dealing with this year. Schools play an important role beyond providing education as a support system for children with teachers, peers and activities, which has been dislocated in this crisis.
Children are consequently feeling more detached from their friends, while the lack of physical activities is undermining their overall well-being. The transition to online learning was unavoidable yet unforeseen, which resulted in anxiety among students adjusting to virtual classrooms. These challenges are compounded by overall health concerns of themselves or their parents contracting the virus.
Moreover, children are spending more time online that exposes them to cyberbullying and sexual predators during this crisis. We must not forget children are worse affected as they have to confront their own stressors along with that of their parents, for instance, financial and job insecurity. Some children may feel neglected due to the lack of attention, while others may be at risk of experiencing or witnessing violence when family members are stressed.
Next, caregivers need to be aware of potential red flags indicating emotional distress among children. This may include frequent mood swings, including sadness, irritability and anger. Some other warning signs may be sudden changes in weight, sleeping and lifestyle outside their routine behaviour. If children are showing signs of withdrawal and detachment, it is time for caregivers to reach out to them.
Finally, caregivers must help children develop coping strategies for survival during the pandemic. Being aware of children’s stressors and red flags need to be followed up with adequate emotional support for them. Though some parents may be experiencing emotional distress themselves, it is imperative children get extra attention during these uncertain times to prevent the onset of serious mental health challenges.
Here are six practicable strategies for caregivers to support children amidst this crisis:
1. Emotional expression: Talk to children about what they are experiencing and encourage them to share their emotions freely. Caregivers must recognise emotional requirements alongside physical needs of children, while empathizing with their feelings whether it is missing peers or feeling claustrophobic at home. Tell children it is okay not to feel okay during the pandemic and acknowledge their emotions to explore coping strategies together. Here caregivers will need to have their own emotional check-in to calm themselves before offering support to children.
2. Social connections: Encourage children to remain connected with their friends and relatives online despite physical distancing restrictions. Leverage technology to facilitate engagement with other children, including virtual play dates, games and movies. Some parents organized online costume parties during Halloween recently. If technology can be adopted for learning, it can be extended for socialisation by children.
3. Creative learning: Introduce children to innovative learning tools, for instance, interactive puzzle and readings books. Caregivers may use technology to encourage creative arts and hobbies for all-rounded personal growth despite the pandemic. Technology can be used for intellectual stimulation through online multimedia resources beyond traditional classroom teaching delivered in virtual platforms.
4. Online safety: Talk to children about online safety risks, including acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Caregivers must encourage children to share about their online experiences, while making them aware of inappropriate comments, requests and bullying from virtual contacts. For younger children, parental control software can be installed for filtering harmful content and communication.
5. Balanced life: Help children create a balanced routine of learning, recreation and socialisation, which can ensure a semblance of routine and discipline despite staying indoors. Encourage them to lead a healthy lifestyle with sufficient nutrition, exercise and sleep for physical and mental well-being. Though outdoor activities are restricted, caregivers can introduce online fitness classes to keep children active, for instance yoga.
6. External help: Support children in seeking professional help if they are struggling with emotional distress. Even before the pandemic, Health Ministry statistics estimated over 400,000 Malaysian children suffer from mental health issues ranging from academic stress to cyberbullying, while the National Health and Morbidity 2017 study showed 10% of 13-years old attempted suicide. The current crisis has further aggravated mental health risks facing children, requiring parents to break the stigma and help children access mental health professionals if red flags persist longer.
Crisis to opportunity
The pandemic has forced us to rethink how we interact with children in society, specifically address their emotional needs. If caregivers are conscious of children’s stressors and red flags to support them during this period, the current crisis may offer an opportunity for better communication and emotional resilience. We can help children develop emotional awareness and self-regulation, while improving life skills, adaptability and confidence in facing the future.
Caregivers, particularly parents, must give children extra attention with more love, kindness and empathy than ever before. The pandemic has shown us the importance of togetherness, which can help us come out stronger with better mental health of children.
Let us not forget psychologically resilient children today can help build a peaceful and prosperous future for our nation. For this, we can make compassion viral instead of the pandemic.
Dr Arman Rashid is Project Manager of HumanKind Buddy Bear childline.
To contact Buddy Bear, children can dial: 1-800-18-BEAR (1-800-18-2327). Volunteers are available every day from noon to midnight. They speak English, Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and Tamil. More info is available at: www.facebook.com/buddybear.humankind/
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