Talk about hope when talking to your children about COVID-19, says counsellor Madhavi Nawana Parker.
The very low number of paediatric patients with COVID-19 has perplexed doctors and epidemiologists the world over. While it is a relief that children are escaping the worst of this pandemic, their lives have been disrupted as much as adults. Children like familiarity, and a major change to routine such as this could manifest in reactions such as anxiety, clinginess, withdrawal, shyness, aggressiveness or returning to outgrown behaviours such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting.
Madhavi Nawana Parker, Managing Director of the Adelaide-based Positive Minds Australia, lists some helpful ways to bring some semblance of order in this strange new world. A social emotional development specialist who has worked with children for over 20 years, Madhavi has published extensively on building resilience and confident thinking in young people.
“In these times when there is too much information and discussion on media as well as among children about COVID-19, parents need to keep explanations very simple,” Madhavi tells Indian Link. “Children are by nature very optimistic but as parents, we could end up talking too much because of our own anxieties.”
Instead, convey a sense that things will be alright. “Children need the confidence that grown-ups have a good handle on it,” says Madhavi.
The shift from regular school attendance to online schooling has been the biggest change in the lives of families with children. With school holidays on the horizon, working parents are worried about the implications of this extended lockdown. Madhavi says that parents need to respond to their child’s reactions in a supportive way. “Explain that there is a sickness going around and the way we get rid of it is by being super clean. We have got to wash our hands really well. We don’t hug or high-five anyone.”
For toddlers and pre-schoolers who do not understand anything about the disease, we need to be the people to help them practice social distancing. Though they aren’t likely to understand what is happening in the community, they will notice changes in those closest to them. Not over-explaining to this age group is best. “Children of this age create phenomenal stories in their head,” says Madhavi. “We don’t want to get them obsessed with hand-washing and ‘the sickness’.”
Primary school kids
Kids of primary school age are already getting excellent information from teachers, says Madhavi, acknowledging the wonderful job they do in conveying developmentally appropriate information. “Reiterate to children that doctors and researchers are working really hard to find an answer and for now they need to follow the rules of hygiene and social distancing to bring the problem under control,” says Madhavi.
In general children, digital natives as they are, have adapted well to online schooling. Madhavi reminds us that though this works well for many, there are children who are not technologically comfortable or capable, and children with learning or neurological difficulties. “Understand your child’s anxieties, abilities, personality and temperament, and provide extra support where needed.”
Are electronic gadgets a constant source of stress at your home? Relax the rules a bit at this time, Madhavi suggests. “Don’t put yourself under pressure to find what the right formula is at this point in time. Give yourselves a couple of weeks to adjust to new routines and then sit down as a family to discuss these issues. Yet it is important to emphasise the need for a balanced life, so spend time in activities such as exercise, walking the dog or playing in the garden.”
Another tactic for parents Madhavi recommends is to use reflective listening. This is essentially mirroring back to them what they have said themselves, for example, “So it sounds like you are feeling worried about this,” and then answering based on facts, keeping explanations to a minimum. “If children keep coming back to the same conversation, try ways to move on to other topics, breaking the circuit of their worry with positive and happy things. Be present and engage in the things you love to do as a family.”
Self-care for parents
In a COVID-19 world, the respite offered previously by school and work to both parents and children, is now missing. Spending all week together in a confined home space has started to have repercussions in the form of irritation, anger and domestic violence in extreme cases.
“I want to remind parents that their mental health is paramount in this time, as this will reflect on their children’s mental health,” Madhavi says. “Find ways to be alone, to relax, listen to music, read, meditate, exercise, phone a friend or watch your own TV shows. Let the kids know that if at the end of the day, you need a break and they have to sit and watch TV by themselves, so be it.”
Summarising, Madhavi says, “My primary message is to give hope. Hopelessness leads to anxiety and depression and consequently helplessness. Don’t over-talk when answering their questions, stick to the facts. Keep information focussed on hope, on hygiene and on facts. Keep children off the news if you can but keep them connected to nature and to each other by whatever means you can.”