With most adults battling to cope with the mental strain of the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation has been even harder for SA's children. Dr Sheri Fanaroff, a family physician, weighs in with some tips to help kids manage.
By Dr Sheri Fanaroff - Family Physician
Just like adults, children (both big and small) are also experiencing anxiety during these unusual times.
Some level of anxiety and sadness in children at this time is completely normal. Children’s response to anxiety will depend on their developmental stage, their previous level of function and how the adults around them respond.
What is causing anxiety in children?
- Being off school
- Going back to school after a prolonged absence
- Social isolation (not seeing or being allowed play dates with friends)
- Missing grandparents, cousins and extended family
- Limited play
- Worry about getting sick
- Worry about parents or grandparents getting sick
- Worry about completing academic year
- Anger and frustration about missing out on parties, dances, sporting and cultural events
- Academic pressure (from parents and from school)
- Online schooling
- Large amounts of schoolwork
- Looming exams and deadlines
- Picking up on parental anxiety
Very young kids
Very young children tend to feel overwhelmed by sensing their parents’ anxiety. This may present with regressed infant-like behaviours eg. being more clingy, not wanting to sleep alone, toilet training regression.
Often anxious children in this age group experience a change in eating or sleeping habits. These behaviours indicate their need to be protected.
Primary school children:
Primary school children may also display regressive behaviour. They can also present with somatic symptoms (sore tummies, headaches, vague aches and pains).
They may be more irritable or emotional with excessive crying. Sometimes school performance suffers and some children do everything in their power to avoid school. Children with OCD may have obsessions and compulsions around handwashing and fears of becoming contaminated.
Adolescents (and preteens):
Adolescents can also present with behavioural disturbances. This may manifest as acting out and irritable behaviours, as they attempt to express their frustration and they may become oppositional and defiant.
But just as worrying is a teen who becomes more withdrawn than usual. Look out for difficulties in concentration and attention, excessive sadness or worry and avoidance of activities they used to enjoy.
Teens with ADHD may find planning and keeping a routine at home challenging. Restricted movements and activities may cause restlessness and lack of freedom may exacerbate frustration.
How to deal with this :
Parents are often tempted to try to keep life as normal as possible for their children and to keep going as though nothing has changed.
Even young children are very aware of COVID or at least that life has changed drastically. Be open and provide age-appropriate information about the virus. Listen to what they are feeling. Let them know it’s ok if they feel upset.
Validate their feelings with clear simple messages. Be empathetic rather than punitive. Respond directly about how you can work together to make the situation more bearable. Be open and provide age-appropriate information about the virus.
Reassure your child that they are safe. Remember that they will absorb and mimic your behaviour. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn from you how to cope. If you feel you need some extra help, ask your GP or health care provider; your child may benefit from referral to a child psychologist or play therapist.
Suggested healthy habits to protect children’s mental well-being:
• Get enough sleep
• Eat healthy meals
• Exercise regularly
• Keep a consistent schedule with predictable wake-up times and bedtimes
• Make realistic schedules for completing work with enough time for breaks and relaxation
• Limit your family’s exposure to news coverage of the pandemic, including social media. Children may misinterpret what they hear and be frightened about things they don’t fully understand.
• Be a role model for your child - take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise, eat well and connect with friends and family.
• Spend time with your child engaging in meaningful activities- reading together, exercising, playing board games.
• Loosen restrictions on social media within reason; it is important for them to be able to connect with their peers. Be flexible with schedules and change them if they are creating anxiety.
Take home message:
Let’s keep our perspective. Take things day by day and week by week. These challenging times will pass. Meanwhile, be patient with and kind to your kids and yourself. Schoolwork will be caught up and activities will resume.
Reassure your children and ensure that they feel safe and loved. Hopefully, they will associate this time in their lives with happy memories of time spent with family.
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