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COVID-19: How to protect your child's mental health

Karin Nadia Utami and Renisa Aru Ariadno

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Jakarta  /  Thu, April 30, 2020  /  01:47 pm
COVID-19: How to protect your child's mental health

The stay-at-home policy amid the COVID-19 outbreak might present new stressors for children. (Shutterstock/kibler)

Amid the rapid spread of COVID-19 worldwide,  governments are banning activities that involve large gatherings, including school and working from an office. Several countries are implementing lockdowns and ordering people to stay home.

This mass quarantine and isolation have caused widespread fears and concerns among societies and affected people’s mental health, especially the at-risk population, including children.

While we can agree that staying home and self-quarantining are essential to prevent the spread of COVID-19, doing so has several negative impacts, especially on children.

Research shows that when children are not in school, whether on the weekends or over the holidays, they are less active, have longer screen times, have irregular sleeping patterns and consume more unhealthy foods. These conditions often lead to weight gain and decreased physical fitness. These effects are likely to be much worse when children stay at home without any outdoor activities and interaction with their friends.

Parents should pay more attention to their children's mental health. Stressors that they experienced during the pandemic, such as long isolation duration, fear of getting the infection, boredom, lack of contact with friends, lack of personal space at home, even family financial loss, can affect their psychological wellbeing. Research has shown that in children experiencing quarantine, the mean post-traumatic stress scores were four times higher when compared to children who are not quarantined.

To lessen these effects on children, the government, NGOs, the community, school and parents need to understand the downside of long quarantines so they can address these issues more effectively.

WHO has released a guideline on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indonesian Psychiatric Association is using this guideline to manage child and adolescent mental health during the pandemic. One of the interventions mentioned is how to help children cope with the stress related to the pandemic. During an emergency such as a pandemic, children may show stress in different ways. They could be more demanding, agitated, angry, anxious, have mood swings, prefer to be alone, some even wet their bed. The most crucial thing is to keep children active and give them understanding of the situation.

The child and adolescent psychiatry division of the Indonesian Psychiatric Association has also spread its guidelines through social media, explaining how to help children and adolescents maintain their mental health during the pandemic. The guidelines stress how parents and caregivers should support to their children by doing activities at home, develop routine activities such as praying, studying, playing, doing physical activities and learning life skills by helping adults do house chores. For many parents, these new conditions can be challenging as they have to be with their children all day, supporting their needs and responsibilities. For this, parents also need to maintain their physical and psychological wellbeing, by having their own time to manage their work, balance their mood by doing hobbies while also being available when their children require their help. Children can feel relieved after they tell their caregivers about what they feel.

The simplest way a parent or caregiver can address the situation is by giving the children enough love and attention so they can resolve their own fears. It is also important to be honest with children and explain to them what is currently happening in the world with words and in a way that they can easily understand.

Due to the perceptive nature of children, they will mimic how to respond or react to a situation from their parents or caregiver. This is why it is very crucial for parents to manage their own stressors so they can be a good example for their children. When parents or caregivers react calmly to COVID-19, they are indirectly giving the best form of support for their children. Parents or caregivers can seem more reassuring to children if they are better prepared.

Another way to help children cope with the current situation is by helping them find ways to express themselves, which can be done through various creative activities. The best way to do this is by establishing a daily routine, consisting of different types of activities that they can do at home. This routine can be beneficial especially since the children are currently quarantined at home, making them less bored and lonely.

It is important to note that an emergency, such as current COVID-19 pandemic, affects each child in different ways depending on their characteristics, experiences and social and economic backgrounds. Some children might experience more severe, longer-lasting reactions to the pandemic compared to other children. Common attitude changes that the children may experience and parents need to watch for include excessive crying, excessive worry or sadness, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, irritability, difficulty focusing attention and concentration, avoidance, unexplained headaches or body pain, and the use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.

Before an emergency takes place, it is important to talk to children about future conditions and let them know about safety plans. Including them in this process will make them aware that their parents are prepared to keep them safe and help give them a sense of control.

When an emergency is happening, parents need to be able to stay calm and reassure their children while constantly informing them about what is currently happening in a way that they can understand. Once an emergency has disappeared, parents need to let their children talk about what they went through while the emergency was happening. Encourage them to share their concerns. It is important for parents, teachers and other adults around the children to work together to share information and knowledge about how each child is coping after a traumatic event.

Regarding the pandemic, parents or caregivers should allot time to talk to their child or teens about the outbreak. Answer every question and share facts about COVID-19 in a way that is understandable for children and teenagers, reassure them that they are safe and let them know that it is OK to feel upset. It is very crucial for parents to share with their children how they are dealing with their own stress so they can learn how to cope from their parents.

Limiting exposure to news coverage regarding COVID-19 might help children relax because they often misinterpret what they hear and it causes them to feel frightened about something they do not fully understand. Teach children to take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly and eat well. 

Aside from parents and other caregivers, mental health and psychosocial support services for children and teenagers should be in place. Child protection services also need to adapt to the current situation to make sure that  care is available to children or families who need it. (kes)

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The writers are medical doctors from the School of Medicine, University of Indonesia and research assistants at Cipto Mangunkusumo Hospital's child and adolescent psychiatry division.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.